So this is silly but I burst into tears on page three of Between You and Me, a new novel from Portland author Scott Nadelson, at the totally ordinary moment when protagonist Paul Haberman meets the woman he’s going to marry, a divorced mother of two. Paul is a single man living in Manhattan in his mid-30s, described as having “settled into a comfortable bachelor’s life, with a job as in-house legal counsel—one of a dozen—for a mid-sized insurance firm in Midtown and an apartment on the Upper West Side he shared with his cat Franklin…”. It’s a good if uneventful life and he’s perfectly happy until he meets Cynthia, falls “deeply, heedlessly in love” and suddenly becomes a husband and father. I absolutely love Nadelson’s writing, and my tears were for….something like the sense of life-lived and decisions-made in the opening scene, which shows the reader the moment in Haberman’s life that meant, “Oh, this is what the rest of your life will look like.”
If that sounds romantic or romanticized, it’s anything but, though the book is full of beauty, deep joy and excellent writing about love and parenthood. Nadelson has a great eye for the ordinary human, with all our pettiness, struggle and quiet triumphs. The epigraph, which conveys the book’s humor as well as telling us what we’re in for, is a Wright Morris quote that says:
“A man who headed no cause, fought in no wars, and passed his life unaware of the great public issues—it might be asked: why trouble with such a man at all?”
But of course you can find everything essential about living in such a person’s life, and that’s what Nadelson does, with elegance, grace and a perfect eye for detail. The story is told in chapters that jump in time every two years, from 1981 when Paul meets Cynthia, to 2001 when he’s forced into early retirement and his children are grown and gone. The events are small dramas—how Paul copes with co-parenting with Cynthia’s ex husband, a potential infidelity on a business trip, a sweet-sixteen party gone wrong—and nothing can exactly be said to have worked out well or badly either, in the way of real life.
The book’s construction, scenes, pacing, prose and humor are all so absorbing and well done they make such excellent writing look easy, when it’s actually so hard. Every metaphor is layered and every set-up has power. For example the premise where Paul meets not just a woman but a woman with children, and becomes not just a father but a step-father seems simple but actually raises the stakes dramatically. Nadelson lops off the children’s babyhood years, thrusts his character into the thick of something that’s already half over, lets us watch him sink or swim.
A first of several repeating chapters called “Nocturne For Left Hand” is one of the best and most beautiful things about the joys of parenting I’ve ever read. It starts “Every night, after the kids have gone to bed, he searches for their shoes…. This is one of his contributions to the efficient running of the household…. He performs the task quietly, without announcing himself, and takes private pleasure in knowing how useful he has been.” —For the non-parents in the audience to get this, I’ve also cried this month upon discovering that my 4-year-old had hidden his only pair of clean, somewhat presentable shoes. Tears of frustration, mainly, that I’d done the work to provide a pair of seasonally appropriate shoes, that fit, that were in good shape, for just such a moments as this, and the fruits of my labor were being denied to me. The step-dad who finds the shoes every night, the man who recognizes this work as needing to be done and takes it upon himself to do it, is a very good man.
The rest of the Nocturne so offhandedly and subtly you’d almost miss it explores Paul’s reasons for finding the shoes, which are venal (it makes the morning easier) and personal (an orderly house is pleasant) as well as mensch-like. And the payoff is only implied, which is that parenting is about exactly this type of work, it’s about finding the fucking shoes, every day, having the right pair, getting the child to put them on. The relentless work is the joy, if you’re doing it right. The Nocturne ends with Paul trying to untie his daughter’s shoelaces, like so:
“The lace tangles. He feels sweat sliding down his sides. His knuckles grow stiff. He reminds himself that he should buy replacement laces, stock up with every color and length. If he had a pair now, he’d cut the goddamn things off and start fresh. But all he can do is keep pulling, as patiently as possible, while big wet snowflakes catch light from his lamp on their descent.”
And in such moments, we have our lives.
Incidentally, this chapter also has a line that’s stayed with me for days:
“Obliviousness to the lives of adults is the gift of childhood, its crucial freedom.”
Much of the beauty of this book is its realism, and thus Nadelson also chronicles Paul’s failings, which are large and small. A misunderstanding leads his black neighbor to think he’s racist, yet rather than correct the impression he retreats into awkwardness and avoids the man for the next decade. He’s genuinely surprised when his step-son Kyle gets into medical school, and realizes he’d always expected the child to fail. Nadelson even offers Paul one great-events-style challenge to rise to, and shows him flunking it. Kyle somewhat at random researches Paul’s European Jewish roots for a school project and discovers a pre-holocaust tragedy that wiped out all of Paul’s bloodline. Paul’s response is to sidestep the information, ignore it. Obviously he couldn’t have done anything. Maybe he didn’t need to know, but the reader, at least this one, wanted him to engage a little more.
As he ages, he seems less happy, and I also wondered if that would have been different if he’d tried a little harder in various areas.
A chapter near the end is called “Anything Quite Like It,” a title which refers to an eel a child has caught in a bucket at a summer picnic. Here’s the description:
“From the bucket came an unsavory slurping sound, and when he looked inside he experienced an odd dizzying sensation at the sight of swirling water sloshing against orange plastic. It took him a moment to realize the water wasn’t moving on its own, and for a flash he believed the boy had magical powers, or mystical ones—confirming, in either case, childhood suspicions that the world was far more complicated than he knew. Then he saw the wriggling creature at the bottom, about six inches long, a black streak turning circles and figure-eights, at once frantic and graceful.”
The child says he’s never seen anything quite like it, and that he’ll remember it for his whole life. Later he seems to forget, but Paul remembers, and sees the eel again at a moment when his life is in danger. I read the eel as a metaphor for the mystery of our lives, there in a flash and then gone. Paul is not really the type of character to grasp at mystery, which either matters or doesn’t. Nadelson, on the other hand, has grasped it brilliantly.