by Joshua Henkin
Pantheon Books, 2021; 292 pp. $26.95
Of all the dreaded afflictions that affect the human mind, the one that has come to be known as “Alzheimer’s Disease”* is surely among the worst.
There are other ways to suffer, particularly in old age. Many of them involve excruciating physical pain, which Alzheimer’s rarely does. Many are highly contagious, which Alzheimer’s is not. Some can be palliated by medicinal treatment. But nothing like a cure has yet entered the Pharmacopeia for Alzheimer’s.
So when someone begins to “lose their grip,” those who care about that someone face numerous dilemmas. Chief among them is: How bad is it?
Serious, bad, and very bad would be three useful categories. And we encounter all three, one by one, in Joshua Henkin’s new novel, “Morningside Heights.” Whose main narrative voices (Henkin uses several,) we meet in the story’s opening pages, and continue to get to know as his fine book unfolds.
Spence Robin, a successful and revered English professor at Columbia University (hence the book’s title) is the Alzheimer’s victim. In his 30s when the story begins, he’s just beginning to be symptomatic. His son, Arlo Zackheim, who Robin at age 8 basically abandons, is another. And Robin’s second wife, Arlo’s stepmother, is a third.
The book is divided into 47 time and location shifting chapters. One has to pay close attention to “Morningside Heights” to sort out its multiplicity of events and places. One major element is New York City. There, Arlo, as a teenager, comes to live with Spence (“the youngest tenured professor in Columbia’s history”) after a catastrophic three-year sojourn with his mother, an erstwhile midwife, on a Hippie farm in Delaware.
Henkin treats us to one of the most thorough expositions of 1970s and 1980s New York in recent fiction. We experience Arlo memorizing subway stations. Remarking on the amazingly diverse humanity in the streets. Testing and tasting all varieties of food. Listening to music in clubs.
And we are immersed, thoroughly immersed, in the politics of the era. As well as reminded of how easy it was then to avoid politics altogether, in favor of romance, careerism, and the traumas of personal development.
Arlo, a small, shy boy, is early on labeled dyslectic. There are inadequate resources in his public school for kids like him. Henkin skillfully lays out what Arlo, who eventually becomes a wealthy computer software designer, had to go through, trying to use his unusual mental skills. Schools – public, private, and “remedial” – don’t help.
“When Fall came, Arlo had new teachers, who forced him to repeat what he had learned last year. He hated the repetition, hated the sounding out of words. He thought of that word mnemonic which his father had written on one of his flashcards. He needed a mnemonic to remember the word mnemonic, and what was the point of that?”
Age age 14, he concludes, “For thousands of years humanity had done fine without reading, and during the Fall of his Junior year, Arlo resolved to do without reading too. As the semester wore on, and he continued to disappoint himself, he thought of another word his father had taught him, “abdicate,” and he started to see school, to see his whole time in New York, as a well meaning, failed experiment.”
As difficult kids tend to be, Arlo is skeptical of adults. In one of “Morningside Heights’s” principal accomplishments, Henkin elaborates on teenage skepticism by bringing numerous characters on stage. As readers can ultimately decipher (admittedly the character clutter is hard to break through) these are all credible people. They dream. They exult. They suffer. Necessity and chance impact them mightily.
So Arlo reinitiates contact with this birthmother, she of the hippie Delaware farm. She’s since gone back to her Midwest roots, where Arlo visits her. He finds Columbus, Ohio provincial, boring, and full of football fans. There his mother has met and seduced a wealthy lawyer, and followed him and his three teenage kids to London. Arlo, out of touch for three years, reminds Linda that she had always said that if things didn’t work out for him in New York with his professor father and his new wife (another undergraduate who seduced him) he could come live with her. And off to London he goes.
“Morningside Heights” then shifts, for the remaining half of the book, to Professor Spence Robin’s Alzheimer’s odyssey. And his valiant wife Pru’s caregiving. It is not a pretty picture. (“He used to move with such grace. Now he lurched like a drunkard.”)
Attempts to make Spence understand what’s happening to him sporadically penetrate his mental space. But it doesn’t last long. He’s convinced he’s still teaching, when he’s been forcefully retired. He’s convinced he’s still completing his next book; in reality he hadn’t written a word in two years. Some days he recognizes people, some days he doesn’t. In one terrifying scene he leaves their apartment and can’t be found for hours.
Along the way, elements familiar to those who’ve witnessed mental and physical decline in a loved one appear in all their grim detail. Supposedly breakthrough cures turn out to be illusory. Paid caregivers come and go. Even the most sympathetic one in “Morningside Heights,” a Jamaican mother with a teenage son, eventually quits. Money becomes a major issue as Professor Robin loses the salary and benefits that came with the Columbia throne. His wife has to quit her job to help care for him.
Meanwhile, life goes on. Henkin shows that Arlo, and his younger sister, Sarah, while they love their father and value all he did with and for them during their formative years, have their own Journeys. Through them we experience San Francisco, Oregon, Los Angeles, and points in between.
The life of the mind can be wonderful, but it’s a terrible territory to explore. Only the most daring and sensitive authors engage it successfully. Joshua Henkin now joins them. This is his third novel. At age 56 we can hope for many more quality works to come.
(*Previously called “presenile dementia” it was renamed in 1910 after a German pathologist, Alois Alzheimer, who studied it, but was not himself afflicted.)
(Larry Bensky can be reached at L.Bensky@igc.org.)