New York City is gridlocked – panic-crazed in the face of a hostage-taking foreign terrorist. But to retirees Alex and Ruth, the chaos in the city is only background noise. What really matters is the fate of Dorothy, their geriatric dachshund.
In Heroic Measures – Jill Ciment’s sixth book, a wry, gentle gem of a novel – we see how easily ordinary lives can be upended. For decades, Alex and Ruth lived quietly as artist and schoolteacher respectively in their East Village walk-up apartment. But the stairs are now too much for them and they must leave their home and seek a building with an elevator.
Ruth gazes on the blocks where she has lived so long and feels waves of sorrow. “In the early light, the street looked tooled in silver, and she felt such tenderness for the neighborhood that she had to collect herself or she might start to cry: they were being wrenched away from everything they loved.”
It would be scary enough under any circumstances for the unsophisticated Alex and Ruth to thrust themselves into the maelstrom of the New York real estate market (they must sell their apartment for at least a million dollars in order to fulfill their dream of staying in Manhattan), but the weekend of their open house the very universe seems on the verge of implosion. Reports swirl that a terrorist has wedged a gasoline truck into the Midtown Tunnel and – much worse – Dorothy suffers a seizure.
Narrated alternately from the points of view of Ruth, Alex, and Dorothy, “Heroic Measures” humorously, deftly tracks a weekend of intense urban angst. The media follows the alleged terrorist from locale to locale, a vicious bidding war breaks out over Ruth and Alex’s modest apartment, and Dorothy lies caged and despondent in a veterinary hospital, wondering if her beloved family has forgotten her.
Meanwhile, rumors veer wildly out of control around them all, as TV anchors venture into increasingly preposterous territory. (“Only fifty-two percent of our viewers say they’d come out if their mother called,” states one as he follows a hostage-taker holed up in a Bed, Bath & Beyond. “What do the experts think?”)
But even as the world spins out of control, some certainties reassert themselves. Ruth turns for comfort to her “Portable Chekhov.” (A great reader, she has found that since retirement she “can only bear the company of long-dead Russians.”) Alex relies on Ruth, the companion he has trusted for over half a century. “He knows the forces at war in Ruth’s features, the frown of righteousness and the knit brows of pragmatism.... Even if the needle on her moral compass is spinning wildly, Ruth will find her way.”
And Dorothy stakes her all on a “carbon-hard nugget of trust.” The intrepid little dog clings to her certainty that “Alex and Ruth will know how to help her.”
William Blake famously wrote of the ability to “see a world in a grain of sand.” Ciment does just this, working as a kind of miniaturist. On a tiny canvas, she paints the world of Alex and Ruth in gentle, exquisite detail. We follow them as they cautiously navigate the icy city streets cradling the ailing Dorothy. We see them nibbling Chinese takeout as they anxiously peer at the TV news. We gaze through their apartment windows, “already as yellow as old paper and as scratched as old eyeglasses when they moved in,” to watch Alex’s microwaved cup of soup “twirl in place, like a ballerina in a music box.”
Yet never does their world seem too tiny to be of interest to us. Their efforts to retain some grace as they struggle for life’s most basic desires – shelter and the safety of loved ones – are universal. Like the peasant woman in one of her favorite Chekhov stories, Ruth wonders repeatedly, “We’ve put the cow up for sale. Don’t we deserve some peace?”
They do. Watching them find it makes a lovely read.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.