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Looking for Heroes: A Novel

Looking for Heroes: A Novel

by Patricia Grossman

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

An uneven but affecting tale of suburban familial angst, Grossman's fifth novel follows Brian in Four Seasons. It's 1998, and Emma Mallick, at midlife, is weary of her sterile life in a gated community in Foster Mills, Long Island. She's been fired from her long-tenured social worker job, and her marriage to Gerald Strauss, a radiologist in private practice with a history of depression, is shaky and largely sexless—even Viagra fails them. Emma fills her days by administering her late father David's art estate, while Gerald sees hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Mallory and studies biographies of do-gooders like Albert Schweitzer. The Clinton sex scandal dominates news and conversation, and this tired motif holds up a derisive mirror to Emma and Gerald's own hangups with intimacy, trust, and caring. Meanwhile, their gay son, Aaron (a stock figure), and Gerald's aging racist father, Sid (very credible), add to the sense of upheaval. Emma and Gerald can sense their disconnectedness, but can't find a way to bridge the gap. This serious-minded novel's shorter, final section shows Emma and Gerald finally overcoming their various anxieties and paralyses. While Grossman makes quiet desperation palpable, her tendency to overexplicate gives the proceedings a fussy air. (Apr.)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Male and female menopause on Long Island causes flashes of heroism, private and public. Emma Mallick and Gerald Strauss, both 53 in 1998, have wearied of their jobs as, respectively, social worker and radiologist. Gerald has also lost desire for his wife. Their 18-year-old gay son is unhappy. Gerald's septuagenarian father is unhappy. So is Emma's lesbian sister Jess. Emma's new role as executrix of her artist father's estate brings her no more satisfaction than a young prostitute, Mallory, gives Gerald. Grossman (Brian in Three Seasons, 2005) then piles on the revelation that Emma and Jess have a half-sister and a niece. Grossman's protagonists have some escape from their messy families. Gerald finds satisfaction in volunteerism; Emma gathers the courage to leave the suburb she always disliked. The characters' problems and resolutions are plausible, but there is a "clunky earnestness of the soul" in Grossman's telling. She judges no one-not the elderly suicide, not the birth mother for a gay couple-except the reader, who is never trusted to respond without the guidance of the author's explanatory sludge. Only at the end, when the birth mother from Georgia speaks, is there a freshet of colloquial energy. Midlife, middle class, middlebrow.

Product Details

Permanent Press, The
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

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The Permanent Press

Copyright © 2007 Patricia Grossman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57962-149-0

Chapter One

All Emma knew was that she had put Gerald through hell last night. Abuse, vilification, profanity, the guttural emissions of some thankfully extinct mammal. She'd been warned by a few of the mothers at her job; they had all tapped into an unsuspected reserve of barbaric behavior. Yet it was over, and now her newborn, Aaron David, stirred at her breast. An invisible current had guided him there; she'd barely parted her robe.

A morning nurse came in, singing softly. She put a finger to her own lips, to stop herself, then gave Emma a broad smile. "I'll open the blinds, all right, mom? He won't even notice."

With the slats of the blinds adjusted, a variegated light settled over Emma's bed.

"Can I get you anything?"

"No, I'm fine. He's doing well, don't you think?"

The nurse, a woman perhaps in her early sixties with wiry gray hair, peered down at Aaron. "Beautifully, I'd say. Not everyone's so lucky with the first feeding."

Emma nodded obligingly. It hadn't happened yet, but she would feel her great fortune soon enough. And if she didn't, if the mere flickers of joy didn't accumulate inside her, the excitement of the others would tow her in its wake. In an hour or so they would converge, one more thrilled than the other. Aaron was everyone's first grandchild, her sister Jess's first nephew.

Early on, Emma and Gerald had settled on Aaron David if the baby was a boy. Another overdue reward for her father-a namesake who would not require from him the sacrifices of his youth. If the baby turned out to be a girl, they'd decided on Rachel Davina, also after Emma's father.

And then on November 16th, at the beginning of Emma's seventh month, halfway between the house and his barn studio in Amagansett, David Mallick collapsed. He'd been out of sight of Emma's mother, or anyone else. No one knew how long he'd lain there, although the coronary was massive and probably took him in the early minutes.

At fifty-nine, David had been well known in the art world only in the last fifteen of a thirty-five-year career. It had happened in the middle of the afternoon. Emma had wondered which way her father had been headed, home or to the studio. At the time, it had mattered to her greatly. Had he been focused on the evolving painting in the barn, the seven-foot long one fixed onto two giant easels near the barn's west wall? Was he approaching that painting, the one layered with color in some places, still scattershot with chalk marks in others? or was he returning to the house for a mid-afternoon nap, spent and ready to surrender to the dullness of the gray day? Emma had wanted to know, but her mother, Adeline, unlike so many stunned survivors, did not seem to crave a repeated narrative, and Emma couldn't bring herself to ask.

Cradling Aaron David, Emma inwardly apologized to him for having to spend the final eleven weeks of his evolution in a womb that had surely been pierced by the grief she had breathed in every hour. How affected would he be by the sudden and hobbling sorrow that had overcome his mother during her pregnancy? Directly following David's death, Gerald also worried. Though a doctor, a person buoyed up by the known variables of science, Gerald had been immediately alert to the possible effect of Emma's grief on their developing child. In the evenings, he had caressed the mound of her pregnancy and sung to the fetus. When she got caught in endless fits of weeping, he'd smoothed her hair with one hand and stroked her lurching belly with the other.

* * *

Through the open blinds, Emma looked onto the hospital's parking garage-open walls, rows of front fenders, a concrete stairwell. next to the garage was a Wendy's. Blurred though it would be to him, she didn't want this cheerless and prosaic sight to be her son's first view of the world. When the others came, she'd ask them to draw the blinds again.

The people with whom Emma grew up, the children of David and Adeline's friends, would never have settled in suburbia as she and Gerald had. Conditioned by their parents' unconventionality-always a point of pride-they had reached adulthood and headed for the scruffy margins of big American cities. Or they had spent years teaching English in Mexico or Asia, or made off for European countries emerging from communist rule. Meanwhile, Emma and Gerald had settled in foster mills, Long island, not quite five miles from Gerald's parents. Emma had a job counseling wayward boys at Hallenbeck Halfway House in the Bronx. Gerald had a fledgling radiology practice. They owned a four-bedroom house, and now they had an infant. Taken together, this was a combination that closed doors. Had Emma's father ranted to her mother about Emma's complacency, or had his love for her led him to deny the evidence? Emma didn't know, would never know, and she must use all her discipline not to speculate. A baby was stirring against her, prospecting for the future.

Suddenly Gerald was there, lilies from his mother's garden shivering as he approached. If he had glanced at her, Emma had missed it; his intent gaze was on Aaron David alone. When he bent down to kiss Emma now, the baby's cotton-knit cap slipped to the side and lily petals brushed against the top of his head. Gerald yanked back the bouquet as if it were a torch flame.

"It's fine, honey," Emma said. "Those won't hurt him." She had no idea from where her authority came.

"It's working," Gerald said, acknowledging Emma's nipple in their son's mouth. "He's taking it."

"And this is the second time this morning."

"You must be exhausted. You've had a rough time."

"Thank god my short-term memory's starting to go."

"You were amazing."

"As one can only be when one has no choice."

"Does it hurt?" asked Gerald, and nodded toward the sheet covering her lower half. She'd had an episiotomy. Earlier this morning, the nurse had had to remind her.

"It's sore."

Gerald frowned in sympathy, then returned to watching his son. the moment Aaron began to stir, Gerald held out his hands.

After Emma turned the baby over to him, Gerald was careful to cradle the back of his skull. He touched Aaron's cheek with two fingers and smiled at Emma, shaking his head. "I can't believe this is even skin. It's practically sheer."

"Normal newborn skin, honey." there she went again, from the mountaintop.

"I know, but ... look at his mouth. He keeps moving it. His mouth is dreaming." Gerald removed the displaced little cap and petted the fuzzy growth on his son's head. "reddish, blondish, brownish," he concluded.

"Too early to tell."

"He looks like you," said Gerald. "I see it in the shape of the face."

"Except look at that ultra-serious Strauss brow."

The baby, Emma realized, was the focal point that had been missing between them for months. For weeks she had thought surprisingly little about what it would be like after the baby came. Yet between them now was this creature of their mutuality, a phenomenon born of their closeness, and Emma found herself tearing up for the first time in months over a feeling that had nothing to do with her father. This child was the direct consequence of her bond with Gerald and would be for years, until he came to belong more to himself than to them. Emma found this thrilling. Emma, who knew more than most not to sentimentalize having babies. A good quarter of her older boys at the Hallenbeck Halfway House were fathers. Their babies did not represent their parents' bond; their babies came of furtive couplings in dark hallways and vacant lots, against building sides or the walls that shielded construction sites. Sometimes their babies came of rape. Emma's clients boasted about these sons or daughters, then committed the crimes that ensured they would not see them for months, maybe years.

A whoosh of air, a crinkling of paper, overlapping voices, and then everyone was upon them. They all arrived at once, nearly jamming up in the doorway: Gerald's parents Sid and Della, Emma's mother Adeline, and Jess, who had been in three months earlier, for the funeral.

Already, Emma longed for the solitude she and Aaron had shared earlier. Something had been about to emerge from that solitude, something that would seal her and her son behind the world's clamor, project them to the realm of mother-and-infant, a sanctified state she was meant to savor.

"I can't believe it!" Della Strauss exclaimed. "He's finally here, and everything's okay. We made it!"

Jess gave Emma a look.

"Let it go," answered Emma with her eyes, although this "we" had rankled her for years.

"The boy prince," declared Sid, close behind his wife. "ready for his coronation."

"Gerald, stop hoarding. You'll have plenty of time alone with him," insisted Della. Then, "How are you Emma? You must be wrung out."

The question struck Emma as inordinately personal. "He's nursing already," she offered.

"Already! are you sure he's getting any milk, though? He's not too weak to suckle?"

As if Emma could not feel what was going on in her own breasts. "everything's fine," she said.

Keeping their attention on the baby, Adeline and Jess managed to squeeze in at Emma's bedside. They piled their gifts at the foot of the bed.

"Congratulations, honey," whispered Adeline. Then she turned to watch Gerald hand the baby over to Della.

"I'm just so bummed my plane got in late and I missed last night," said Jess.

"Take my word for it," Emma said, "you would not have found my company edifying."

Jess smiled. She looked happy. Why not? she was twenty-three years old, quite beautiful, free of responsibilities other than to her new household, a feminist commune north of San Francisco.

Just before David died, Jess had told Adeline and Emma (fortunately not David) that she was gay. Emma was taken completely by surprise and had spent hours talking to her colleagues at Hallenbeck about it. None of the talk helped her form a comfortable position on the subject. But what about her and Jess's relationship had ever been comfortable? Jess had always been the prettier, the more expansive and charming of the sisters. Emma's theory, admittedly ungenerous, was that Jess had gained these attributes by virtue of having had a far easier childhood than Emma. She was only four when David had achieved his success, whereas Emma, at seventeen, had been close to fully formed. If Jess's newly declared sexual preference was genuine, she would have a harder time of it. Initially, this reality had shamelessly cheered Emma. Gerald had been more judicious. "If it's a stage or not," he had said, "I'm glad for her that it's not the fifties anymore."

"I think he wee-weed!" exclaimed Della, beaming and holding Aaron out.

"They gave me more diapers," said Emma.

All but Sid volunteered to diaper Aaron. The offers of the others came immediately, overlapping. For the first time since David's death, Emma didn't have to strain to hear her mother, to make out the words she had wrested from some remote burrow inside her. Since her husband's death, Adeline had smiled only a few times, and then ruefully. Always a creative and light-hearted dresser, she now wore muted colors and tightly woven fabrics. Her step had slowed, and her voice was so depleted that Emma and Jess frequently had to ask her to repeat herself.

Without a word, Emma reached out to reclaim her son from Della, then put him in her mother's arms.

Chapter Two

When Gerald had suggested that Emma go off the pill, he had imagined that he was merely clearing the way for a new era, their effort to have a child, an undertaking he'd dedicate himself to as he had to all others in his life. They were both thirty-five, he'd reminded Emma, beginning their descent on the fertility curve. if necessary, he was prepared to see Ben Meyers, the Manhattan reproductive specialist with whom he had shared a cramped apartment during three of his four years in medical school.

Then, less than seven weeks into their plan, Emma was pregnant. Gerald was unused to triumphs that were not achieved through steady application. Sid and Della had trained him that with few exceptions, success was the culmination of striving. His own example had proven this to be true. When he didn't study, he did poorly. When he didn't read instructions, somewhere along the way he discovered that his calculations had failed him. When Gerald argued without recently acquired facts at his disposal, he was unable to sustain his line of reasoning. Gerald had had many successes, but none that came without exertion of one kind or another. So as much as he knew that the conception of a fetus was a biological process that occurred beyond the range of his control, he did not at first believe that he'd managed to bypass his usual diligent route to success.

When Emma passed her first trimester without miscarrying, Gerald was further bewildered. As she tended to, Emma chided him, told him it was Della who had conditioned him to expect the worst. He had to agree, but he thought his mother also spoke for his father in this regard. Sid may put himself over as hale and hearty, Gerald had claimed, but if Della weren't always at his elbow to catastrophize for him, he would come around to it himself.

At his brand-new radiology practice, Diagnostic imaging associates, Gerald began to worry that he and his partners were entering into a level of debt that would doom them. He fretted over the cost of malpractice insurance, the loan payments for the office renovation, the high lease rates on DIA's equipment. His partners took to calling him chicken Little.

Toward the middle of Emma's fifth month, though, Gerald began to experience a sense of anticipation unlike any he had known before. It was intensely physical. Whenever he thought of Emma's giving birth in four-and-a-half-months time, he became virtually giddy. There were times he actually thought he could feel his toes shimmer. At DIA, he began to imagine the flip side of his scenario of ruin, that a torrent of privately insured patients would come from Foster Mills and Cedar Knolls, that they would all recommend others. A sense of equanimity overcame him as if it were he, not Emma, being nurtured by a surge of hormones.

Emma's pregnancy was easy, and she worked throughout it. Her working was the only sore spot between them. Gerald wanted Emma to take off the first few years of their child's life, but she wanted to keep working. She had told him that although she was happy they would be parents, she didn't have quite the same mother gene as other women, that she knew she would be a better mother if she kept working. Three days later, she had remarked that she didn't believe children had to have siblings to be happy. Gerald didn't try to argue. He told himself she might change her mind, did not let the remark diminish the layer of anticipation that had newly surrounded him.

And then, conveniently on a Sunday evening, Emma went into labor. For the first few hours, both at home and at the hospital, she was calm, even removed, regarding her contractions as specimens of sensation, visceral revolts so curious she felt compelled to describe each one. As time went on and the contractions grew closer together, Emma stopped describing them and committed the whole of her energy to surviving them. Gerald applied cold compresses to her forehead, for distraction as much as anything. Even as a doctor, he had never felt skin so clammy as Emma's during the contractions midway into her natural labor. During one she had yelled, "you fucking cocksucking bastard, this is torture!" Gerald had of course heard his wife swear, but this was truly shocking, like an attack of Tourette's or something out of a scene from The Exorcist. Gerald had asked if she wanted to change her mind about the epidural. Apparently she hadn't heard; her hand became a pincer latching onto his pant leg. She had yanked him forward so abruptly and with such strength that he pitched over her. By the time one of the floor nurses said Emma was ready, Gerald was afraid to accompany her into the delivery room. For a moment he had wished that this was the Fifties, that he could escape to a waiting room where he and the other expectant fathers would root for one another's wives.

Over the last two months of Emma's pregnancy, Gerald had asked himself which he would prefer, a boy or a girl. Emma gave all inquirers the stock answer-she didn't care, as long as the baby was healthy. Gerald had nodded in agreement, never telling Emma the truth-that if backed against a wall he would have to admit he hoped for a girl. If they were going to have more children, it wouldn't matter, but if there would be just this one, if he failed to convince Emma to change her mind, Gerald did not want to replicate his own family of three; he wanted a girl.


Excerpted from LOOKING FOR HEROES by PATRICIA GROSSMAN Copyright © 2007 by Patricia Grossman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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