Yet another superb small novel appeared in the past couple of months, titled Thomas Murphy, and written by Roger Rosenblatt, better known to many as a playwright. This novel is roughly equivalent to last year’s small, splendid Academy Street, little noticed by critics, but listed on my “top twelve” books of the year as third. Rosenblatt’s novel is of such high quality, both in its writing and its analysis of character, that reading it is sheer delight: Rosenblatt is clearly a poet, if not in actuality, then in prose.
His lead character, Thomas Murphy (and oh! what a great role for an aging actor!), is a New Yorker, born and raised in Ireland, who’s had a good career and much success but he may be losing some of his mental acuity, which worries his only child, daughter Maire, to distraction, and her attempts to get her father to see a neurologist are heroic and mostly failures. Murphy is used to using his great charm and his creative imagination to survive, live and flourish, and his interactions with the reasonably young female neurologist are hilarious: she refuses to fall for his charm, and he’s aware of that, but it doesn’t stop him from filling out medical forms as if they were literary challenges to his imagination: parts of the novel which pit Thomas Murphy against systems are utterly hilarious, and we the readers, though we sympathize with Maire, are rooting for Murphy, whose dislike of bureaucracies and categories on forms is thorough, as is his disgust with them. This novel is full of such moments. Maire, a successful financial analyst in Manhattan, has one son (she’s divorced), who’s nearly exactly like a mini-version of his grandfather, and their outings into places like Central Park for walks, ice creams, the zoo and the like are sheer delight for the reader, for Murphy himself, and for the grandson: Rosenblatt’s creation of the grandson as a little version of his grandfather fills the reader with delight and hope. When, though, Maire has to tell her father that she and her son are moving to London to take a big job, his world begins to crash–but he’s too resilient, and his mind too fertile and creative, to crash.
Thomas Murphy meets a man in a bar, who’s aware of Murphy’s fame as a published poet, and wheedles Murphy into trying to get this stranger’s wife not to leave him. It’s a hilarious mise-en-scene in the novel, who eventually agrees to meet this young wife, who’s blind and brilliant, and, as Murphy’s really game for anything inventive and imaginative, he and the wife fall in love while her husband does his philandering. (Murphy’s been in mourning throughout the book for his late wife and his late best friend, too). Murphy will indeed take his new love back to Ireland, his other island homeland (Manhattan being the other), and truly show her the land and the ocean through his descriptive powers, so that she, Sarah, can “see” his Ireland: those are beautiful, truly gorgeous passages of prose, and prose combined with the effects of love on both of them make for superb descriptive writing and an elegant narrative in the deal. Thomas Murphy is greatly afraid, though, that the tenants in the apartment building in which he’s lived for decades are trying to get him evicted; some of his middle of the night gambits are hilarious but may be offending his neighbors. In one of many denouements of pure joy in this novel, his neighbors actually have rallied round him and his right to stay, and Thomas Murphy, aging and forgetful though he’s become, doesn’t intend to give up, and he will continue to live partly in the reality of the moment, partly in his invented narratives, but the power of his personality, his language and his feistiness do rather win out.
This novel about refusing to admit to the deficiencies and infelicities of aging make this novel go against the general grain of books about Alzheimer’s and dementia and all the rest of the debilitating mental diseases our aging population’s beginning to face, and Murphy’s general optimism and creative charm have certainly kept him going, and will continue to do so, for long after we’ve closed this superlative novel. Rosenblatt has created one of this year’s most memorable characters in Thomas Murphy, and the magnificence of the language in the novel doubles the special treats in it awaiting those willing to acknowledge that life is not only for the young and smug.