In different ways, two recently published novels solidly critique the American West culture that simultaneously purports to elevate history while stubbornly clinging to the convenience of historical forgetfulness. In both novels – Inhabited by Charlie Quimby (Torrey House Press) and Man in the Mirror: A man finding himself as he loses himself to Alzheimer’s by Zoe Murdock (H.O.T. Press) – there are main characters who despise being reminded of what they lose but the stories also ask then what is left to remember.
Quimby’s newest novel is his second, coming off his successful debut with Monument Road. Inhabited sparkles with the writing flair and 360-degree insight expected from an author who left the world of journalism and marketing communications and has found the incisive voice characterizing the best writers in a new generation of literature about the American West. Quimby creates an appealing and instructive main character, Meg Mogrin, a real estate agent who is as respected by the Colorado town officials anticipating a new corporate development as she is by members of a coalition that works on the behalf of homeless citizens.
She also assists young women in the community with a scholarship program including Pandora, who shows signs of promise in a musical career but also is tempted to follow an abusive boyfriend to North Dakota. Meg faces numerous tests of conscience not only about her professional and civic duties but also about the circumstances surrounding her younger sister’s death. Quimby’s characters in Inhabited must contend with recognizing that the past cannot be ever buried merely by forgetting the events that shaped its history.
Quimby’s novel is impressive at every turn. His chapter headings are clever and serve significant literary purposes. He might use a line from one of the fictional columns she writes for Grand Junction Style magazine. They foreshadow story and theme elegantly: Homes are time capsules-some waiting to be filled, others sealed long ago. – “Home” with Meg Mogrin, Grand Junction Style. And, then he juxtaposes chapters with other headings that promise and deliver literary depth: Does anybody force or trick you to do things that you do not want to do? – Vulnerability Index Prescreen for Single Adults.
Inhabited continues a recent stream of fiction published by Torrey House Press that engages the readers with public, social and political issues by touching emotions and inspiring advocacy in ways that might not be possible with traditional nonprofit or community political platforms. Quimby, who splits his time between Colorado and Minnesota, draws upon personal experiences in his writing. When he writes dialogue about the homeless or the town’s back-and-forth on community redevelopment, the text conveys a credible, accessible and knowledgeable tone. This early passage about Meg’s work is especially elegant:
She made sure retirees saw the orchards and vineyards and golf courses. Families she drove past the sprinklered ball parks and the waterslide at the pool, pointing out the gasflame-blue sky through windows sealed against its swelter. And in season, The Botanical Gardens. In the west, she would say, towns thrive only because of water and here we are at the junction of two grand rivers. From drive-by distance, the tamarisk remained a distant splurge of olive foliage and pink feathery blooms, not a creeping riverbank strangler. Butterflies shimmered among lavender blossoms, unmindful that the soil once hosted mill tailings and scrapyards. On glorious mornings like this one, it was easy to forget how much of the town had settled atop ruin and reclamation.
Quimby captures Meg in the tensions of reconciling the role of dutiful civic-minded realtor with being the sincere advocate for the homeless and poor in her community: “If citizens wanted the river cleaned up, they should do some of this dirty work. They should see the poor people being driven from the home.” In a meeting with homeless coalition representatives and other community leaders, including a woman committed to beautifying the town’s parklands, Quimby imagines a discourse that could be happening in any city where visible homeless people make civic leaders and residents uncomfortable. Defending the homeless, Zack says that unfortunately, “people have to do their personal living in public.” The woman acknowledges it’s a “tough, multidimensional issue,” adding that her “heart breaks for people who don’t deserve to be in that situation.” The shelter manager winces at the woman’s remark: “I believe you’re sincere when you say you’re not anti-homeless. … But as a community we don’t judge whose suffering is most worthy. … Help people in crisis and maybe the parks won’t need rescuing.”
The town is discussing a proposal by Wesley, who envisions turning an abandoned warehouse property into a semi-permanent residential community for his fellow homeless citizens. With Wesley, Quimby suggests we should not see homelessness as just an absence of home but also as it relates to the sense of inclusion and support in one’s community:
Now if the city considers me a weed, they’re going to chop me down and mulch my butt. Naturally, that tends to make me less enthusiastic about participating in your community affairs. But I do care about where I live. I have friends here. I enjoy the natural surroundings. How I live is not who I am. Living in a tent doesn’t make me a scumbag.
Wesley’s project is a hard sell even as Meg sees it as being more creative and collaborative than the proposal to develop the headquarters for Betterment Health, “a $600 million company … a glorified collections agency with some special software for hospitals.” Lew Hungerman comes to town encouraged that the town wants to address the problems of vagrancy “more aggressively.” However, no one is really sure about his intentions: “It’s easier to find Hungerman’s triathlon times than his record as a developer. He’s been working through consultants and locking up people with confidentiality agreements.”
The town leaders leave it to Meg to escort Lew Hungerman. Meg is not thrilled by being put in this awkward blind date which somehow wants to mix business with pleasure. As one of Meg’s friends tells her, she’s good at handling mixed messages. Hungerman fails to chip away at Meg’s defenses but she also wants to find out just how serious he is about putting his headquarters in the town.
Quimby sets this up as an intelligent peroration about how nature and place alone do not create nor define landscapes but also how people are always complicit in how these landscapes are culturally formed. Meg takes Hungerman to sights that one would not expect on an ordinary walking tour, while sharing the town’s history: “This is about what’s gone. Like the Utes. Three treaties and an uprising later, the Utes were removed to Utah. About two minutes later, Grand Junction’s founders put up over five thousand city lots for sale. We were a creation of speculators from the very start.”
She summarizes the town’s history from the Panic of 1893, through the Great Depression and World War II, and the prospecting for uranium in the first decades of the Atomic Age, which ended when the mill was closed in 1970 and the site cleanup was completed in the middle 1990s. Meg dispenses with the tone usually heard from town cheerleaders: “Bombs, pollution, cancer and federal cleanup. Twenty years later, there’re nothing here, except the Botanical Gardens, a burned out homeless camp and a historic building nobody would touch until you came to town.” When they end the tour at Las Colonias, the property where Hungerman has set his sights on for his development, she says the place is, “inhabited by the ghost of everything that’s ever happened. It’s like this glimmer of radiation from past mistakes, not strong enough to kill you, just to remind you there’s no such thing as a clean slate.”
The irony of that significant sentence imposes on Meg’s own personal challenges. Meg and Hungerman pass by Cold Shivers Point that “became the forever disturbance of the place.” She is coping with the tragic death of her younger sister and with what happened to the killer. She worries about Isaac Samson, a homeless man who has a degree in library science, and what he knows about the town and what he has seen. Isaac’s brother (Joe) also is a local reporter and news about a found glass eye has piqued the interests of several individuals.
Meg decides to reconnect with Brian, her former husband who now lives in a remote desert area in a simple campito. Brian is a teacher who works with the Hopi, whom he respects for how they see their life’s events by “intensity or significance, not time.” Meg’s visit to Brian’s simple home reminds her of the conscientious duty she has to her community and perhaps even rekindles her admiration for her ex-spouse who imposed his own exile. Brian says, “If you live selfishly, you destroy your home. The white man has this only figured out half-way. To satisfy our desires, we surround ourselves in luxury and destroy other places instead.”
Quimby gives every character, major or minor, an essential piece of the literary puzzle in articulating the book’s epiphanies. After Hungerman meets with Donnie Barclay, whose agreement is needed to provide the access road to the business development, Meg asks Donnie if he believes that the developer is sincere about putting his stakes in their town. Barclay’s response could be a perfect explanatory note to this year’s presidential campaign but also about how communities can be vulnerable to so-called good intentions:
See, the more money enters in, the harder it is to see people straight. Hard even to sort out for yourself. Being able to ride across my land is worth more to me than a six-million-dollar road job. But if I trade the paving contract for a ride on a horse. I’m a fool, so I take both. It’s not that the goodness of something turns to greed when it gets big. In my book, greed is buying your Cadillac with the widow’s investment funds. It’s cheating on your taxes. Greed is screwing the people who work for you as if you were God on a bad day. Greed is an ugly thing. It’s about loving yourself too much, and money has very little to do with it.
With Sister Rose, a Catholic nun who also is at the forefront of many community efforts, Quimby offers more spiritual substance in a handful of dialogue than in many a church sermon or meeting. Meg is annoyed by Wesley’s testiness. She believes that his project of creating a tent city will only be possible if Wesley sells “his vision as a redemption story. He has a higher nature, a free will and a sense of responsibility like everyone else.” Sister Rose advises Meg not to fret or worry too much about the challenges. She tells her, “Don’t measure yourself against saints. Don’t fret about ending homelessness in ten years. Homelessness ends when it ends for a person. And then you do it again. … At the end of my life, the Lord isn’t going to ask me how many people I put in apartments. His question will be the one he asks everybody: How did you love?”
Inhabited is an outstanding novel with memorable, believable characters who deal simultaneously with the challenges of reclaiming and redeeming themselves as well as the landscapes that define their communities.
MAN IN THE MIRROR
Murdock’s novel deals with place and memory in the personal struggles of Aaron, a physically healthy elderly widower who shows worsening signs of profound memory loss at the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. A former writer specializing in technical communications, Murdock brings another fresh voice to the Utah Enlightenment’s growing literary canon. Her first novel was Torn by God: A Family’s Struggle with Polygamy. Murdock’s key strength is elucidating fully detailed portraits of psychological realism and it is manifested effectively in Man In The Mirror.
Aaron lives in Salt Lake City but dreams of building a new home on his property in southern Utah, a desert sanctuary where he can live in peaceful happiness with nature. However, as his life initially changes with the sort of forgetfulness that might be normally excused in any adult, he also tries mightily to comprehend a journal of poems his late wife (Laura) kept throughout their marriage. Aaron is shocked and disturbed to read poems in which his late wife expresses her dissatisfaction and disappointments in their marriage.
As he struggles to understand his wife’s writings, especially as his memory lapses with greater magnitude and frequency, he also becomes frustrated by the efforts of loved ones who step in to take control of his life. If he is angry, it is because he is trying honestly to understand what has happened. This includes the emotional distance with his son (Michael), triggered by a terrible argument after Laura died. And, there is his daughter (Sarah), who lives nearby and wants to do what she believes would be best for her father as he falls deeper into the grips of Alzheimer’s impact. Sarah tells her father that she did blame him for her mother’s death but her feelings have changed: “I was hurt and confused about why she had to die, and I knew she was upset with you sometimes.”
Even as Aaron’s forgetfulness changes his routines, his wife’s poems also bring out the memories of his younger days, especially when he was in southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent during World War II. Raised as a Mormon who kept up the appearances of a typical Utah LDS household after the war and throughout his adult life, Aaron recovers the memories of those days far away from Utah when he discovered a way of life and thinking unlike the rigid upbringing of Mormonism: “That was the thing that amazed him: how could sensuality and spirituality be tied together like that? His religion wasn’t sensual at all. Compared to the exotic religions of India, it was stark and mundane.”
When Aaron finds the poems, he urgently wants to understand why his wife would write, as he describes, such hurtful things about their marriage. He asks Sarah if she knew about her mother’s discontentment. She answers that she knew about the poems but they were not always as negative as he perceives them. She pulls a poem titled The Sin of My Discontent that her mother wrote six years before she died, which read in part:
Here within this hidden heart
Where no on sees the trouble start
Or sees the aching pain begin
The anger grow, my secret sin
I know the Lord would not condone
My discontent, this dreadful moan
I am a wife, I have a child
My duty is to serve and smile
The shadows dim and I must wake
From this sweet dream my mind doth make
I take myself back home again
And hide away my sin
Murdock’s use of poems is a smart element in the story. As Aaron’s cognitive faculties falter, he also transcends the socially constructed boundaries of his life. Murdock situates Aaron’s story as an imaginative, ambitious, complex and engaging exploration of the intricately connected relationships we have with memory, social construction and the geography of place and nature. The poems are essential to this exploration, even if those around Aaron cannot understand how he finally understands his life’s experiences. Though well-intentioned, Sarah falls short in trying to explain, “I think she was doing what she thought she was supposed to do. I mean, isn’t that what the poem says? That the men in their coats and ties [an early line in the poem] would say she shouldn’t pay attention to her questions and desires, that God wouldn’t like her discontent. But you and Mom were both just doing what you were brought up to do. What you thought God and the church expected you to do.”
Aaron is dissatisfied at the response. He finds it hard to believe that people would say they had no choices in their lives and that “we were just a couple of robots following along.” Aaron becomes more upset, emotionally hurt first by his wife’s poems and then by his daughter who seems to suggest that he was just a “weak man who only did what he was told.” Murdock juxtaposes these emotional disturbances with his lucid recollections of his youthful days overseas during wartime and the promises of being with his new young bride (Laura). Murdock rightly invites readers to see loved ones who are suffering from Alzheimer’s in a much different dimension than what we might be accustomed to do.
Defying his daughter’s cautions, Aaron heads out on long road trips to the southern Utah desert region. Eager to soothe his loneliness and perhaps find a companion who can help him understand more about what his wife’s poems mean, he does not hesitate to pick up hitchhikers. The first one is Daniel, a homeless war veteran who shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and is looking for a ride to St. George to join up with friends at a camp. Despite Daniel’s crankiness and occasional violent, profane outbursts, Aaron hopes to keep his companionship around a bit longer when they camp out overnight on his property. Aaron thinks that Daniel could help him build his new house.
He even cajoles Daniel into soaking his aching body at a nearby hot springs. Daniel fidgets constantly, desperate for cigarettes. Meanwhile, Aaron talks to Daniel about his wife’s poems and hopes that he can help him find something positive in his wife’s writings. The man selects one, thinking that the opening references to “golden skin” and “longing sighs” in a poem titled In My Dream You Listen is what would satisfy Aaron. This poem, written more than a decade earlier than the one Sarah picked out, describes the “battle in my heart” and her “mistake,” as she writes, “I let you take the power of my mind/And here I stay, pretending that I am blind.” Daniel wants to stop reading but Aaron insists that he continues:
Still in my deepest sleep, I see your soul
The young man that I knew, I still can know
If you set aside your manly need to rule
You’ll be my darling love, my sweetest jewel
Unlike the poem Sarah found, which came from more than a decade later, this earlier poem is hopeful and loving. However, Aaron even appears to become more upset, wondering why he could not have seen an opportunity to redeem himself that now has been lost forever.
Despite Daniel’s “uncouth” personality which disgusts Aaron and the small yet certain signs of the toll the old man’s memory loss takes, it is the setting of an undisturbed desert that puts Aaron at ease. For him, the true religion has always been nature:
The high mountains to the west had turned a deep blue-violet while the sandstone cliffs to the east were ablaze with the last of the sun. It made the red sand of the whole valley glow beneath the green-gray texture of the sagebrush. Aaron felt like he was standing on hallowed ground.
Back in Salt Lake City, Aaron becomes even more restless during the winter, annoyed by the gray days and choking effects of the valley inversion’s toxic air. The memories of his younger years become yet more clarified and he comes upon the earliest poem his wife wrote. Written in 1949, The Tender Fruit Of Our Love is filled with passion and love and no signs of bitterness and disappointment. It is the full-throated promise of a couple who still see themselves as newlyweds:
A life emergent from our joy,
Descended from our God divine
Took balance on that human twine
Within our melded hearts
Aaron can hardly stand one more moment in the city but his daughter insists that he stay under her watchful eye and her sphere of controlling his movements expands gradually. She hopes to derail his plans permanently to build a new home in southern Utah. She encourages him to join the family for dinner and spend more time with the grandchildren. Aaron finds some small satisfaction in telling his grandson about his younger days in India and how he rode an elephant, which impresses the youngster. Later, as he rummages through old mementos, he is startled to discover that a photo of him atop an elephant was on a white stone statue, not the animal. Aaron’s confusion is more profound than ever, worried if he was remembering accurately anything that was ever important in his long life:
He remembered feeling so majestic up there, like he was the king of the pharaohs. But now, the photograph was telling him none of that was real. Could he really have made the whole thing up?
Everything was telling him he couldn’t trust his own mind. He hated to think his memory was that bad, but if it wasn’t his memory, what did it mean? Had he been making things up his whole life? Had he been living his life in a dream?
On his next trip south, without caring to notify his daughter about his whereabouts, Aaron picks up Maya on the road, a free-wheeling New Age young woman who talks almost constantly but also is enchanted by the old man. In fact, Aaron is even aroused by Maya’s presence, pleasantly surprised at the intensity of youthful urges. He is heartened by Maya’s references to a guru’s counsel and while he doesn’t always fully comprehend what she says, he believes that her words best describe what his own feelings are even if he cannot always find the right words to explain what he means.
However, during this trip, Aaron also puts his safety and health at the greatest risks, which set up the book’s last act. This doesn’t mitigate the reader’s empathy for Aaron. Meanwhile, Sarah is exasperated by her father’s seemingly incomprehensible adventures but finds it increasingly difficult to monitor her father’s movements around the clock. She tells her father that she wants to be a loving, caring and nurturing daughter but Aaron insists that nothing is wrong with him. He only needs some solitude and quiet space to sort things out and not be confused. He is flustered and angry at his daughter’s constant monitoring.
There are numerous instances where Aaron gets into serious trouble and the realism is as sharp as it should be. The Good Samaritan in one incident turns out to be a state trooper who ends up being a thoughtful, compassionate friend for the old man and saves him during one risky incident. The trooper gently asks Aaron for advice because his father is going through the same issues and he occasionally gets angry. At this point in the story, Aaron struggles constantly to find the right words, worried that if he sounds like he is not making sense, he will be put away in a home like Miriam, a sister who also had Alzheimer’s. Aaron tells the officer, “I guess, it’s kinda like … maybe like cotton. Like mushy mush when you try to find it. And then sometimes you don’t even know what it is. That’s the scary part. It’s like the whole thing is just … gone, and you don’t even know where you started.”
The officer thanks Aaron for explaining why his father seems angry all of the time. Aaron is surprised. The officer tells him, “Yes. It’s like you said, he just wants his freedom. When I try to take that away, he gets angry, even though I’m just trying to protect him. It’s a hard one.”
Murdock misses no observation or detail in her writing, which gives the reader the proper emotional counterpoint to the clinical realm of trying to make sense of a disease that ranks behind cancer as the most-feared illness. Even as scientists begin to advance significantly on understanding and combating Alzheimer’s, many still find it difficult to understand the human impact of what happens as someone begins to experience the effects of it.
Sensitively written, Murdock’s novel is a worthy companion to Inhabited as a realistic, compelling meditation on how we remember place and how those memories form and explain our changing identities in the landscape. In the cognitive haze of Alzheimer’s, Aaron reminds us of how much we can lose if we deliberately forget the heart of our place in Utah but also how much we can reclaim if we engage and involve all of our senses even as one is incapacitated.