I recently revisited my favorite fictional character, William Henry Devereaux, Jr. I met Hank for the first time in a small Redmond bookstore, over a decade ago. Picking up that book was an act of complete serendipity, as delicious as all such discoveries should be, a discovery of more moment than I could ever have planned during a noontime escape from the desk. When I pulled the book from its pinewood shelf in the humble strip-mall store, lured by the face of a white duck on the otherwise red spine, I had no idea how strongly I would identify with Hank.
On the back cover, USA Today is quoted as saying “Bursting with humor and insight”. The humor was apparent in my very first page-one read, that day in the bookshop. The hook was set, the promise of a great ride was made. The book sustained the promise and Straight Man has had a permanent place on my shelf ever since, my all-time favorite work of fiction.
Hank and I were of approximately the same age then. Much of his life seemed familiar to me and I nodded my way through his experiences with familiar recognition at each point where I discovered something he and I shared in common.
I’ve grown older; Hank has not.
This most recent reading not only amounted to a visit with an old friend but produced unexpected insight of the sort promised by the USA Today review. Bits of Hank’s perception, observation, bias and wisdom, the musings of a budding curmudgeon, came forward as though certain pages had been rewritten since my last read. They were there all along, of course, so the only possible variable is me. The newness seems real, nonetheless. My only explanation is that in the interval since the last read, I must have become ready to discover them in ways I was unprepared for earlier. My little red book now bristles with the edges of small yellow sticky notes, marking passages that seemed to leap out to me this time.
A mention by a friend of my much-neglected blog seemed to match at least one of the insights Hank has just shared with me in the last, most powerful ten pages, in which Tony, one of Hank’s English Department colleagues at the university, characterizes their time of life as a Season of Grace. Hank, taking stock of events in his life over the course of the previous three-hundred sixty-five days, and the previous three-hundred sixty-five pages, sees it somewhat differently. He is of the opinion that, rather than grace, age has more to do with concession and diminishment.
I keep talking about retirement as a beacon nearly at hand, a time in my experience with aging when I’ll be free to do as I please, to walk, to garden, to kayak, to read, to write. And yet, as I’ve aged these ten years since Hank & I first met, I realize I’ve learned something of what he was just coming to know when we were both 50. I’m finding that my days seem to contain much that was unforeseen, that stuff of responsibility and obligation, perhaps a dash of adversity, the stuff which continues to crowd out the pursuits I prize most highly: Concession. What guises will the unforeseen take in the years ahead? My health? Jeni’s health? Money? Diminishment.
Not that these define me but, through Hank’s narrative, I too recognize their presence in my life. If I have learned nothing over these last three years, it’s that what I should expect going forward is more of the unexpected.
Having closed the cover on Hank’s story again, I reflect upon my relationship with Hank, who exists not only in this little red softcover book, but as a companion of sorts. Hank’s experience is my experience. At some point, during the gradual day, Hank and I will visit again in these pages, when we can discuss things together at length, as men do.