A Closing of the American Kind | The Nation


A Closing of the American Kind

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For all that Chick tells us about Abe's disapproval "of queer antics and of what he called 'faggot behavior,'" about how "he couldn't bear the fluttering of effeminate men," about how "he despised campy homosexuality and took a very low view of 'gay pride,'" he also worries the subject like a sick tooth's socket. Sometimes this nervousness is high-minded:

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John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

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In matters of sex, I sometimes felt, Ravelstein saw me as a throwback, an anachronism. I was his close friend. But I was the child of a traditional European Jewish family, with a vocabulary for inversion going back two millennia or more. The ancestral Jewish terms for it were, first, Tum-tum, dating perhaps from the Babylon captivity. Sometimes the word was andreygenes, obviously of Alexandrian, Hellenistic origin--the two sexes merged in one erotic and perverse darkness.

At least as often, however, we are closer to wincing home. When Vela accuses Chick of having had corrupt sex with Ravelstein, "I laughed like anything. I told her I didn't even know how the act was done, and that I wasn't ready to learn, at my age." He concedes that "you couldn't, as the intimate and friend of Ravelstein, avoid knowing a great deal more than you had an appetite for. But at a certain depth there were places in your psyche that still belonged to the Middle Ages. Or even to the age of the pyramids or Ur of the Chaldees." Are we clear? Abe is "doomed to die because of his irregular sexual ways," to be "destroyed by his reckless sex habits." Ravelstein's sinful "taste for sexy mischief," his relish for "louche encounters, the fishy and the equivocal," combined perhaps with his impatience for hygiene, his "biological patchiness" and his "faulty, darkened heart and lungs"--"When he coughed you heard the sump at the bottom of a mine shaft echoing"--add up to a shadowing of "risk, limit, death's blackout" on "every living moment." To be sure, "to prolong his life was not one of Ravelstein's aims," but it is certainly one of Chick's, and has been ever since he chose, at age 8, not to die of peritonitis: "No one can give up on the pictures."

So the white crane flashing its wings faces off against the master strumming his lute. Abe is an "atheist-materialist." Chick, for all his passionate attachment to the faces of people and surfaces of things, for all his sense of "privilege" at being "permitted to see--to see, touch, hear" an "articulated reality" in "the interval of light between the darkness in which you awaited first birth and then the darkness of death that would receive you," nonetheless believes that "the pictures must and will continue." The dead aren't gone for good. Daily, he will talk to Ravelstein.

But only after he has gone there himself and then come back, "blindly recovery-bent," with "the deep and special greed of the sick when they have decided not to die." If the philosopher was teaching us how to go, the novelist, with the heroic help of his wife, will teach us how to stay. The last fifty extraordinary pages of Ravelstein take us from Abe's memorial service...to a Caribbean vacation for Chick and Rosamund...to a French restaurant, a toxic fish, food-poisoning and nerve damage to a bewildered Chick...to an emergency airlift, actually an angelic skyjacking, prestidigitated by resourceful Rosamund...to oxygen and Boston and a hospital "end zone"...to a falling passage through circles of hellish hallucination--nightmares of cannibalism, cryonics, bank vaults and Filene's Basement--to the light again and the wife who saved him. This may be the same light Saul Bellow once found in Jerusalem, whose filtering of blood and thought allowed him to imagine "the outer garment of God." But the wife is the novelist's own, the mother-to-be of a brand-new child for an octogenarian adept of due process. About this woman, Lazarus will say: "Rosamund had studied love--Rousseauan romantic love and the Platonic Eros as well, with Ravelstein--but she knew far more about it than either her teacher or her husband." [Emphasis added.]

There's a punch line, like the grandest of ideas dissolved by music into a form of feeling, like the opening of an American mind.

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