John Casey mixes love, betrayal, and the pratfalls of politics.
By Chris Wright
MARCH 23, 1998:
THE HALF-LIFE OF HAPPINESS, by John Casey. Alfred A. Knopf, 352 pages, $25.
You can't accuse John Casey of being hasty. His last novel, the National Book Award-winning Spartina, came out nine years ago, and the one before that, An American Romance, was published 12 years earlier. That's three novels in 21 years; not exactly a prodigious output. Yet if you consider the amount of care that goes into Casey's work, you start to appreciate why his books are so few and far between. Hardly a page goes by that doesn't suggest a tweezer-and-magnifying-glass degree of craftsmanship.
Though the prose style is simple, The Half-life of Happiness is actually a very elaborate piece of work. The book leaps back and forth over time; it contains enough fully fleshed-out characters to fill a bus; it offers insights into literature, art, architecture, politics, love, religion, death, and boxing. It wavers throughout between tragedy and farce. The remarkable thing is that Casey makes all this miscellany fit seamlessly.
The story begins in the late '70s, in Charlottesville, Virginia. The novel's protagonist is heading home to his wife and kids after a day at the office. "For no reason he could think of Mike felt terrific," reads the opening line. "The pretty tax specialist rang her bicycle bell at him and pedaled by in her slit skirt. He felt no base stirring, nothing but benign sympathy for how good she must feel coasting home with a breeze lifting her hair."
It all seems very blithe and sunny. But Casey is a rare mood-maker. He tweaks and smudges the details until what's on the surface doesn't quite add up. Already there is a hint of something less than rosy here. Mike feels terrific, but cannot think why; and the fact that he "felt no base stirring" sounds a little like a smoker's brag -- an exception rather than the rule. Sure enough, he goes on to admit that "on his walks home he'd often felt peppery grains of lust falling on the plain boiled meat of his day."
(We should note here that Mike Reardon is middle-aged, middle-class, white, and male -- the preferred social and cultural gargoyle of today's fiction writers. He is also a lawyer. The cloud hanging over the opening page might just forecast a touch of literary comeuppance.)
We really don't believe Mike will remain a "well-behaved, pleased dad" for too long, and our suspicions are soon confirmed when, a few pages on, Mike's youngest daughter is rushed to the hospital with an eye injury, and the worried dad proceeds to flirt with the attending doctor.
But Casey is not one to use a moral mallet to make his points, and the situation surrounding Mike's potential for misbehavior is a lot more sticky than it seems. For one thing, Mike's wife, Joss, doesn't understand him. Their marriage heaves with one-sided arguments and uneasy sexual accords. They do have two lovely, precocious daughters, Nora and Edith, and an extended family of colorful, loyal friends who stop by for clever conversations, fun and games, and communal breakfasts. For a while, it all seems almost idyllic. But then there's the mood thing again: amid all this life you can catch the smell of death.
Casey might be a stickler for realism -- there is not a single detail in The Half-life of Happiness that doesn't ring true -- but he is not averse to introducing, every now and then, symbolism of theatrical proportions. Early on in the book, the beloved family dog dies of old age, and Casey goes from harrowing, picture-perfect description ("Miss Dudley's lying down and there's a fly walking on her eye") to eerie portent. As Mike is burying the dog, Joss says, "It's the end of an era." Just then, their friend Tyler shows up with his new girlfriend, Bonnie, and the end is a lot more nigh than anyone thinks.
If we get the sense of Mike's sexual longing early on, it takes us less time to figure out Bonnie's predatory appetites. We just know that someone is going to get whacked -- and we think we know who. When it happens, though, it comes as quite a surprise -- to us as well as Mike, who is, indeed, surprised.
Lawyerly and rational as he is, Mike is given to strange insights, or existential episodes. One night, sitting by the river, he goes into a sort of trance, and is stricken by an image of infidelity: "He turned the flashlight on and saw the slow brown water sliding in the sudden light, muddy coils twisting into each other, a liquid arm wrapping on a sunken tree limb, then slipping off. The river caught in the act." From this image follows another: "They're pulling their skirts up. They're slipping their hands into each other, Bonnie's skinny fingers first, then Joss' middle fingers right up to her wedding ring."
Joss and Bonnie are indeed in love, and it throws everything into chaos -- familial ties are ruptured, the whole extended family explodes and scatters. Meanwhile, the only real perspective we get is from Edith and Nora, who, throughout the book, look back at the affair from 25 years down the road, offering insights like: "I could feel things moving. I could feel all the grown-ups being blown around inside themselves." It's determinism chillingly reworked -- with the Appetites standing in for the Fates.
And then the plot fishtails. To co-opt a soccer cliché, The Half life of Happiness is a book of two halves. His emotional life in tatters, Mike attempts to displace his woe by running for Congress. Suddenly, smack-bang in the middle, the book goes from being a sensitive study in emotional atrophy to a rollicking political satire. Frankly, it's a bit disconcerting.
Not that the author doesn't do a good job. Coming from political stock himself (his father had been "a New Deal politico"), Casey knows all the twists and feints of the political process, and he lampoons it with unswerving accuracy. Mike does the radio call-ins, the public forums, and the political rallies with touching by-the-book fealty -- and farcical incompetence. He falls flat on his face and drags himself to his feet and falls flat on his face again. All the while, we get a sense that he is learning -- there are no huge epiphanies, but rather an accumulation of small realizations.
This is where Casey's caretaking counts the most. The ability to be thoughtful without being pedantic, to be straightforward without being heavy-handed, to be wise without being a smart-ass -- it all proceeds from the author's skill at letting the big picture emerge from an accretion of small details.
As we reach the final pages, however, Casey's achievements threaten to become the book's failures -- particularly as we wade through the drawn-out epilogue. It simply goes on for too long, until, regrettably, the author's otherwise inspired use of understatement verges on the dreary. Wise and witty though it is, The Half-life of Happiness may ultimately add up to too much more than the sum of its parts.
Chris Wright is the assistant editor of Stuff@Night.
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