The Laying on of Hands: Stories

by Alan Bennett
ISBN: 0312290519

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Collecting Extraordinary Ordinary Lives
by Irene D'Souza

Readers who expect Alan Bennett to turn in another opus as accomplished as his previous works, such as The Talking Head' series on PBS, will not be disappointed in the three stories that make up the collection of The Laying on of Hands. Bennett, who has already captured our loyalty and made us more attentive to the foibles of being human in screen plays such as Prick up your ears, is never preachy or sappy. He has an uncanny ability to get under the skins of his characters. This versatile creative raconteur has honed his skills at examining character and situation, capitalizing on his playwriting experience.
Bennett is unafraid of psychological complexity. He never flinches from probing the darker recesses of the human psyche, but also provides his characters with a compassionate edge. The characters may be funny and zany but they are whimsically drawn portraits of ordinary people living extraordinary lives. His fascination with ordinary life and the cadence of emotions are at the core of his stories. With sentences crafted to bring the darker side of life into sharp focus, Bennett creates alienated people drowning in loneliness, desperately reaching for guidance in a world devoid of moral and spiritual markers. Bennett once again demonstrates his mastery at turning tragedy into comedy with his cast of unforgettable thinking women and men. The stories are clever, alchemical-Bennett begins by saying something about the state of contemporary England, and gradually, moves to a discussion on race, class and the perils of celebrity.
Take the title story: Ostensibly about a memorial service for a gifted young masseur, Clive, whose trademark hands have left an indelible print on famous people from all walks of life, the tale is actually a satire on all things religious, sexual and English. Father Geoffery Jolliffe an Anglican priest with more than a passing affinity for all things Roman, and who had fancied and known Clive in the biblical sense, contemplates life, death, God, the afterlife, sin and redemption. Not being apprised of the cause of Clive's untimely death in this age of punishment for the unfettering of one's carnal desires is the major concern for most of the congregation. Many of the couples who were more intimate with Clive than each other receive news of the cause of his death with orgasmic glee.
Bennett illuminates telling moments in his characters' lives. "Irony was always the deity's strong point and to afflict a transgressor as timid as Geoffrey with such a disproportionate penalty might appeal to the Almighty's sense of cosmic fun." The fact that this hapless priest is plunked down into a vocation more loathed than respected beautifully articulates the balance between choice and impulse. Bennett captures the giddy decadence of the celebrity class, their transgressions, confessions and resolutions. This story has all the right ingredients; Father Jolliffe's half-repressed desires and conflicting sense of pride and shame are realistically captured. His layered and tormented character is vividly, fully realized. And the sham of the bereaved congregation is farce at its best-rich, absorbing and so much fun.
"Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet", is a poignant and sobering study of filial cruelty as well as the exploration of erotic tension between a lonely unmarried department store clerk and an unconventional podiatrist. Bennett movingly shows how humans manage to maneuver, however clumsily, through the hazards of life, coming to terms with the wrecks of their own psyches. Miss Fozzard has the dubious distinction of looking after her stroke-affected ungrateful brother, whose vocabulary consists of one word, cow', which he manages to vocalize when his sister is in the vicinity. A non-entity at her place of work, Miss Fozzard's only pleasure in life is getting rid of her tinea pedis. When circumstances force her to forgo her treatments; she gets a unique proposition and willingly accepts. "I SUPPOSE THERE'S A WORD for what I'm doing butI skirt round it." This quirky meditation on the fragile and melancholy world of the unmarried, older sales clerk could easily have resulted in clich or camp, but Bennett's heartbreaking rendition is grace personified. Read it to understand that love in its many guises is sometimes more than enough.
In "Father! Father! Burning Bright", Bennett chronicles the unending dilemmas faced by adult children and their aging parents. Sandwiched between a mediocre career and a less than loving nuclear family, a man whose name is Midgley, keeps vigil at his father's deathbed. Much to his wife's chagrin, Midgley refuses to leave the hospital until the end. This is not about an emotionally wounded loving son; it is about a man confronting his own mortality and grasping for some excitement in his own life. Bennett depicts not just the familiar sterile landscape of middle-age angst, but the inner lives of those confronting the inevitable.
The stories in this wonderfully compact book resonate with honesty as they neatly chronicle extraordinary ordinary lives. They make for a most satisfying read.

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