A descendant of Cheever, Stuart Nadler traces evolving relationships with delicate, precise prose in his debut short story collection, The Book of Life.
Stuart Nadler’s debut collection of short stories bears the stamp of an earlier generation of American fiction writers. Set in New York and New England, peppered with references to Ivy League schools and the Red Sox, preoccupied with the inescapable bonds of family and the ever-present shadow of religion, The Book of Life unavoidably calls to mind Updike, Cheever, and Malamud. These stories’ contemporary setting is not immediately obvious.
But then—a character pulls out a laptop, or sends a text message, and suddenly, we are grounded entirely in the present. It’s a nice formal echo of The Book of Life’s favored theme, the ways in which the present is always uneasily informed by the past, particularly where relationships are concerned. In “Visiting,” the collection’s penultimate story, technological advances stand in for a father’s inability to understand his son:
Marc fiddled with the tiny black box that produced his music. Jonathan glanced at the thing and remembered the enormous turntable he’d owned at fifteen. In his backyard, he’d built a solid oak cabinet to house the record player. He’d needed help moving it to the bedroom. It was a piece of furniture. Marc’s music player was smaller than a baseball card.
In “The Moon Landing,” a screenwriter’s memory of attending the Apollo 11 tickertape parade with his mother shapes an uneasy reunion with his brother. Both “In the Book of Life” and “Our Portion, Our Rock,” center on childhood friends who find their adult relationships complicated by cross-pollinating affairs.
It isn’t only time that affects relationships in these stories; relationships also do funny things to time in these stories, alternately collapsing and dilating it. The narrator of “Beyond Any Blessing” looks at his grandfather’s “terribly thin, pocked” hands and reflects that “The mystery of my old age had, in some way, always been gone from me: I needed only to look to him to see what would happen to me.” In “Catherine and Henry,” the titular female visits the titular male two years after she caught him cheating, hoping to rekindle their love. Nadler needs only a brief, devastating exchange to depict her realization that you can’t go home again:
“You’re so much older,” she says, putting her hand on his forehead. … [“]Where did it all go? Your wonderful messy hair?”
“I got older,” Henry says.
“Only two years,” she says. “Two years is nothing.”
As these descriptions suggest, Nadler isn’t terribly interested in relationships that don’t have a history. Daniel, the narrator of “Beyond Any Blessing,” has an affair with a woman he has known since he was ten; Nadler renders Daniel’s inability to escape this past with lyrical wisdom:
Despite whatever maturity I might have gained between now and then, I still suffered from the same problem I did when I met her, at ten years old, during a mandated summer-camp social, standing lakeside and bug-bitten beneath a flickering fluorescent lightbulb out on the recreation-hall deck. The best love affairs, I’d learned, die with an incredible slowness.
Especially crucial for Nadler is that opening disclaimer: “Despite whatever maturity…” The wisdom of experience is a tenuously held outpost in these stories; age is no guarantee of prudence. The Book of Life’s sharpest moments arise when a character who knows better betrays a friend or parent, and, by extension, his or her own self, moments that also afford Nadler some of his finest comparisons. In “Catherine and Henry,” Catherine’s guilt over having baited Henry into infidelity is “lodged inside her like some surgical instrument left behind in her body.” Eric, the narrator of “Our Portion, Our Rock,” attempts to channel his love for one woman to another “like swapping a new car for an old one.”
Other descriptions are weakened by Nadler’s tendency to repeat them across stories. With the exception of some lovely musings on the strangeness of the moon’s daytime appearances, these recurrences produce not pleasant reverberations but rather an unfortunate sense of authorial laziness. Abe, protagonist of the collection’s first story, smells “the patisseries on Montague blowing sugar and nutmeg and cinnamon into the wind” as he prepares to buy an apartment for his extramarital liaisons; Jonathan, the bewildered father in “Visiting,” recalls that he and his ex-wife lived in an apartment above a bakery, where they “woke to the smell of confectioners’ sugar.” An awkwardly placed kiss on the corner of the mouth becomes a symbol for suppressed passion in both “Catherine and Henry” and “Our Portion, Our Rock.” Clumsiest of all is the similarity between the opening of “Our Portion”—“The year I turned thirty my father was dying slowly…”—and “The Moon Landing”: “My mother was the first to die.”
The real frustration of these redundancies—as well as the reason they can be forgiven—is that Nadler is clearly a writer whose talents are above such sloppiness. He is possessed of an insight into the wages of time well beyond his years. His stories deftly weave together complex plot strands, converging at moments that present real surprise. And he is a remarkably skilled illustrator of love—its missed opportunities, its tyrannical imposition of regret, its cruel and foolish demands. At his best, Nadler wraps these violences in a delicate hush, which only doubles the heartbreak, as in this description of a marriage whose sexual life is finished: “If they wanted to make love, they could remember how it had been when their bodies were young. It was like a song they’d adored since childhood, learned by heart, replayable in their memories at any time.” With passages like this on almost every page, The Book of Life suggests that as a writer, Nadler is poised to disprove his own maxim: it seems certain his wisdom will only grow with experience.