I'm not usually a re-reader of books. Oh, if I truly love a book, I'll keep it, place it on the shelf and say: one day I'll re-read this one. But rarely do I ever get around to it. There have been a few exceptions: Of Human Bondage, Emma Who Saved My Life, and As Meat Loves Salt. All books that I love and could read many times without hesitation, but for some reason have only giving one more read over the years.
And then there is Grief by Andrew Holleran, a book I have read once every year for the past three years. It's a slim book at 150 pages but packed with so much emotion that it haunts me for weeks and months afterward.
A gay man in his mid-fifties moves to Washington DC to take a teaching position in order to assuage the grief that has descended upon him after the passing of his mother, whom he has cared for after an accident has left her unable to care for herself. While renting a room in the house of another gay man in his mid-fifties, he begins reading the letters of Mary Todd Lincoln written after the assassination of her husband and her aimless drifting within her own grief for the loss of him and her life.
What Holleran does is intertwined these two lives, the narrator and Mrs. Lincoln, and bounds them by their grief of the loss of their mother and husband, respectively, but he also bounds them by their eras: post-Civil War and post-AIDS. Landscapes have been changed for these characters and neither one is sure how to navigate the new terrain.
Indeed, all the characters in the book are trying to navigate unknown terrain, together and separately. Frank, the narrators friend who also teaches at the university and had secured him the position which has brought him to DC, is navigating a relationship with the Lug, a handsome and thoughtful partner who Frank believes is too good for him. The narrator's landlord, a man trapped by his own ageism: he's too old for the young men he desires and too young to be as housebound and resigned to a state of loneliness as he is. They are all grieving for youth, security, loss, and love. Universal themes that resound in the quiet of this novella (Holleran sets his narrator adrift on numerous night-time walks through the most-times deserted historic streets and buildings of DC lending such a sense of silence that you can almost hear his footsteps on the cobbled stones outside the Ford Theatre or the Capitol or the National Gallery).
I am drawn to this book time and again because it teaches me how to deal with grief, an ever present ennui for my life, the choices I have made, the repercussions of all those choices. I grieve my childhood. I grieve my descent into a world of sex and drugs. I grieve the HIV that was the result of that descent. I grieve that it's taken me so long to pursue my true desire of being a writer.
But this book, as filled with grief as it is, pulls me out of my own grieving by telling me that grief is natural but it can't be all their is: one can't survive on grief alone. Mary Todd Lincoln learns that the hard way. She couldn't release her grief and eventually it killed her, brought her back to her husband and her children who passed before her. She ate her grief until it filled her, until it was all she was. And we learn this from the narrator who ultimately returns to his grief after the brief reprieve of DC. He needs the grief awhile longer: "...grief is what you have after someone you love dies. It's the only thing left of that person. Your love for, your missing, them. And as long as you have that, you're not alone--you have them."
It's a beautifully wrought book of emotion and understanding and searching and survival. And even though I'm in the middle of my third reading, I can't wait to read it again next year.