||Mostly In Memory
by Kent Thompson
THERE IS A TERRIBLE democracy in death, as John Donne pointed out succinctly a long time ago; and a wild democracy in youth -- in the commonality of an untouched future; and a third democracy in old age when we are shuffled off to various camps and institutions to be attended to in our slipping years -- and this democracy is a terrible tyranny. No matter who you Were, you are now Old, and no matter what your tastes, your Age is now your only Fact, and you are therefore at the Mercy of the Many. You will listen to insipid pop music piped through ubiquitous speakers; you will listen to vapid con
versations and commonplace attitudes; you will he held in thrall to good intentions. It is Hell.
But not so bad, according to Richard B. Wright`s Sunset Manor, a novel about four residents in a retirement home (not a nursing home) who are getting older and closer to death and on one another`s nerves as the calendar comes `round to Christmas.
The four are representative figures in our society, as it turns out, which is one of the disappointments. Mr. Wilkie was once a high-school math teacher and a bit of a ladies` man who now believes that all women are out to marry him for his money or poison him; Lorne Truscott, who once worked in a foundry and lived to play hockey, is now a garrulous old clown; Mrs. Lucas, born again and again in TV Christ, wishes death on her enemies; and Miss Ormsby, an angular, redhaired high-school English teacher for all her working years, now finds that Romantic poetry, classical music, Scotch, and cigarettes -- in roughly equal measure -- make life worth living to the end.
They are all making do with life, such as it is, at Sunset Manor, and each -- in his or her own way -- is an inconvenience to the plump administrator, Mrs. Rawlings. But nothing much happens except for a minor poisoning plot and some calls to the health department. Each seems content with the attitudes that he or she has taken toward life and death, and each is living mostly in memory.
It is here that Wright is at his best. He has a fine eye for the details of the past, and a fine touch for what things felt like. Mrs. Lucas, who is perhaps the least sympathetic character in the novel, recalls a visit with a friend to a fortune-teller in the old hotel in the town by the lake where all of these people have grown up and grown old.
The green radiators along the walls gave off a fierce heat and she always felt stifled in her mouton coat and galoshes. Both women wore pillbox hats with little veils. The Royal Hotel was by then no longer quite respectable. Most of its rooms were empty or occupied by older men, lifelong bachelors who worked on the lake freighters in the summer. There was a beer parlour on the main floor...
But if the past is the best part of these characters` lives, it is also the best part of Wright`s novel. The current time is curiously anachronistic. For example, the nurse who looks after the old people is always identified (by the author and characters) only as "Nurse Haines:` a form of identification and address that went out with nurses` capes.
And sadly, the characters are chiefly stereotypes. Wright makes no attempt to look for anything individual. The administrator seems to have learned nothing about old people, despite her years of experience -- because her attitude is convenient for the novel. The residents begin as labels and end as ideas: there is not a secret among them, and nothing in the least surprising. They act only as far as their labels will allow.
That`s a pity, because Wright can write with a deft touch, as he does when fat Mrs. Lucas is interrupted in her dreams of vengeance by an intimation of mortality:
She paused for breath. The pocket of air beneath her ribs beckoned for release. As the voice of her tormentor rose and fell in song, Mrs. Lucas felt at once chastened and subdued by the struggle to prevail. She felt, too, a vast and satisfying pity both for herself and for all suffering creatures under the sun.
But the competition for a writer in this subject area is surprisingly fierce. Every work about old age will not only be compared inevitably to King Lear, but also to Cocoon, to "Golden Girls" -- and to The Stone Angel and Bernice Rubens`s A Five Year Sentence and Jane Rule`s Memory Board and Edna Alford`s A Sleep Full of Dreams. It must even compete with the newspapers -- with stories of Harold and Yolanda and their convictions and Harold`s children -- and therefore the author who would succeed must make some pretty tough demands upon himself, especially for older readers. Some of us demand to know more; we have a very special interest