No one makes it to middle age without failing at something. But few things could ache as much as failing as a parent. Henry Dorn, college professor and father of three, has to grapple with failing his son, Robert, without any hope of ever making it up to the young man, as Jeffrey Lent details in his new novel, After You’ve Gone.
One afternoon, while Henry was teaching, Robert took his mother for an automobile ride and made a mistake that cost both of them their lives.
Their deaths came at a time when Henry’s relations with his son had become terribly fraught. Robert had run away to fight in World War I as a teenager and come home with his health broken from being wounded and gassed. While wife and mother Olivia counseled love and patience, Henry seethed at Robert’s morphine addiction and what he saw as moral weakness.
(His lectures to Robert would be comic masterpieces of pompous didacticism if it weren’t for the heartbreak underlying them.)
Wrestling with grief and guilt, Henry resigns his position and takes off to Amsterdam, thinking to research his family’s history there. But once there, the recent past completely overrides his research project. “After You’ve Gone” jumps from the weeks surrounding the tragedies to the early years of Henry’s marriage to his own childhood in Nova Scotia.
Henry’s dad, an artist who specialized in sea life, died of tuberculosis in his 20s, leaving Henry in the care of a rather ferocious mother, a stepfather, and two bachelor uncles. While Henry contemplates his past, he walks the streets of Amsterdam, takes cello lessons, and fills pages with aimless writing.
Lent’s first novel, “In the Fall,” was a gorgeously detailed examination of race in America through four generations of one family – covering everything from the Civil War to Prohibition. Henry’s life overlaps the timeline of much of “In the Fall,” but toward the end, there’s a noticeable lack of the vitality that fired the other novel.
The novel’s biggest problem is the rather puffed-up affair Henry embarks on with Lydia Pearce, a bright, almost-young thing he meets in first class on the ship to Amsterdam. Lydia introduces him to such modern amenities as jazz, absinthe, and cabarets featuring underage girls.
But for all the risqué trappings, the affair has less life than the drawing of dead cod that is all Henry has left from his dad. The two sit around congratulating each other on how profound and insightful they are, while a reader rolls her eyes and wishes the novel would get back to Robert. (It’s never a good sign when the main character is declaring his love, and a reader has to fight the urge to skim ahead a few pages.)
Lydia doesn’t talk, she utters pronouncements. Take her opinion on cut flowers: “Flowers, having flowers, is not a luxury. I see them as being both ephemeral and a mark of civility. Which perhaps are the same thing.” When Henry, who grew up with significantly less money than Lydia, comments that he’d always thought of them as decorative, he’s summarily dismissed. “They are not.”
Fortunately, the meaning of life according to Lydia is only a small part of “After You’ve Gone.” And most of the other characters – from sarcastic, wounded Robert to Henry’s cello teacher, a Russian composer who fled after the Revolution but was forced to leave his family behind – are vastly more interesting. (Henry’s generous-hearted Uncle George, for example, shines on every page he’s given.)
Lent is capable of writing a truly beautiful sentence, and “After You’ve Gone” features lots of them. When Robert tries to convey the mindless horror of the war he volunteered for, comparing the trenches to the anthills he used to flood as a child, it’s visceral. “Except it was men. Everything was dirty and brown, all shades of brown. Except the insides of men. That was red. A lot of red. Splintered bones. White and blue guts. But mostly red.”
And Lent manages to bring specificity to joy as well as grief. One of Henry’s memories is an afternoon the family spent playing in the river during a heat wave, and it’s almost as much a pleasure to read as it would be to live. And the way the novel cuts back and forth between the near and distant past adds tension and suspense to the narrative.
The redemptive power of love has filled many a bookshelf. What sets “After You’ve Gone” apart is the risks it takes. Henry’s desire for redemption is complicated by his own failure to love Robert enough – dating, he’s afraid, from a bout of whooping cough that nearly killed the boy when he was 8. Ultimately, it looms larger than 30 years of a mostly happy marriage and the love of two grown daughters and three grandchildren.
As a portrait of grief, “After You’ve Gone” is something of a still life. (Henry is far too buttoned-down to rend clothes or beat his chest.) But it has plenty to say about heartbreak nonetheless.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.