Starting Out in the Eveningby Brian Morton
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Leonard Schiller is a writer in his seventies. All of his books are out of print; he's left no mark in literary history; a lifetime of dedicated labor has brought him few rewards. Heather Wolfe is a graduate student in her twenties. She read Schiller's novels when she was growing up, and they changed her life. She decides to write her master's thesis about Schiller's work, and she sets out to meet him.
Starting Out in the Evening is a novel about the unexpected consequences of that meetingand the unexpected consequences of art. Heather blows into Schiller's life like a whirlwind and overturns everything in it. After years of obscurity, he finds himself dreaming of literary immortality; after a lifetime of restraint, he finds himself infatuated with a woman "so young she seemed like an emissary from the future."
For Heather, meeting Schiller has even more complicated results. Finding it hard to believe that this cautious, habit-bound man wrote the books that taught her so much about the beauty of taking risks, she begins to suspect that her idol has failed to understand the deepest lessons of his own art.
In the course of the novel, we also come to know Schiller's daughter, Ariel, a spirited and tender-hearted former dancer, and her lover, Casey, a restlessly self-questioning black intellectual. Though deeply committed to each other, they are pursuing irreconcilable dreams, and together they are facing the fear that their conflicts will prove greater than their love. When Schiller's fortunes change dramatically, Ariel and Casey are put to a test that neither of them could have prepared for.
With a startling sureness of touch, Mortonilluminates the inner lives of a varied cast of charactersmale and female, young and old, black and whiteall of whom are striving to live out their ideals in a world that seems to have little room for idealism. And in Leonard Schiller, Morton has given us one of the most remarkable characters to appear in recent American fictionan unforgettable portrait of an artist as an old man.
Written with breathtaking insight and loving humor, Starting Out in the Evening is an exhilaratingly intelligent and powerful novelan extraordinary triumph of the novelist's art.
PRAISE FOR STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING
"Wonderful . . . This is what a novel is supposed to be." --Newsday
"Morton's perceptions of the conflicts within the human heart are keen." --Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones
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Read an Excerpt
In one of the dialogues of Plato, Socrates remarks that the task of the philosopher is to "practice dying." The philosopher must wean himself from his attachments to the phenomenological world--the realm of mere appearances--and turn his thoughts toward the realm of the unchanging, the transcendent, the eternal.
By this standard, Schiller would have made a good philosopher. He had practiced dying for a long time.
During the years in which he had learned his craft, he had gone without most of the normal material comforts. He and Stella and Ariel had lived without television until Ariel was in her teens. He still didn't have an air conditioner. His manual typewriter had served him well since the 1960s. He hadn't bought a new suit in fifteen years.
When his books went out of print he had learned, painfully, to starve his own need for recognition, until he thought he had finally killed it.
And after Stella died, he had weaned himself, he thought, of the need for romantic love. Ariel, a few old friends, and a few students who had become old friends provided all the warmth he desired.
All that remained was his work. And now he just wanted to finish one book. If he could finish the thing he was working on, he thought, he would be ready to die.
He thought he'd be able to finish it shortly after his trip to France. If he'd wanted to, he could have simply imagined what itwould be like to keep the appointment he'd made with Stella, and saved himself the expense of actually keeping it. But honoring their agreement was important to him. There are obligations that extend beyond the grave.
He was acutely conscious of the uncertain state of his health: he knew he might not have much time. He wanted to live without distractions; he wanted to focus all the life-force he had left on this last book. But now it was hard to concentrate. There was something new in his life. There was the painful distraction of love.
He had found himself ridiculously interested in impressing this young woman. She would blow in like a little whirlwind, eager to hear him say wise things; and he wanted to have wise things to say--he wanted to be worthy of her admiration.
More than that. He wanted her to be in love with him. Idiotic, but true.
"Ah, to be sixty again," he said, as he stooped, with difficulty, to pick up a little piece of fluff from the floor.
No: even sixty would be too old. If he were forty, or even fifty, he could be a dashing older man; he could introduce her to a wider life. But as it was, what could he give her? Not very much. He could give her his back issues of Modern Maturity . . .
It was absurd. There was something undignified about this feeling. He was almost fifty years older than she was. Shouldn't those years have given him wisdom, wisdom that would make it impossible for him to be interested in a mere girl? Well, they hadn't.
She wasn't even beautiful. If someone else, someone less spirited, less bold, had inhabited her body, she wouldn't have been attractive at all. But as it was she had a sort of radiant ugliness he found captivating.
Sometimes he had the odd feeling that she was somehow attracted to him. But that was impossible. Put it out of your mind. If you can't put it out of your mind, then look at your face in the mirror. That will cure you of your delusions.
She was picking him up that evening, and he was taking her to a party.
At about two in the afternoon he gave up all pretense of trying to work, and he took another shower, brushed his teeth again, gargled with Listerine, clipped a few hairs from his nostrils and earlobes, tidied up the house, and opened the windows to freshen the air.
The stirrings of desire, after a long frost. One morning this week, for the first time in months, he'd awakened with an erection.
He had to be careful not to make a fool of himself.
As he was tidying up he got a call from Ariel.
"Pain," she said.
"What pain, my dear?"
"Spiritual pain. Emotional pain. The pain of being thirty-nine."
He was smiling. "It's not nice to complain about being thirty-nine to a man who's past seventy,"
"You're a young seventy. I'm an old thirty-nine."
Neither statement was true.
Behind her he heard traffic, sirens, horns.
"Where are you?"
"I'm at my office."
Which was her way of saying she was at a pay phone. With the exception of drug dealers and the city's few remaining bookies, she was the foremost patron of Manhattan's pay phones; she'd call you from the street and chat for half an hour, feeding nickels into the phone every five minutes when the mechanical voice cut in.
"Pain," she sang.
"I'm sorry you're in pain," he said, but he was laughing.
"It's not funny! You don't know what its like. I'm thirty-nine, and my womb is drying up."
He felt a sudden spasm of discomfort. It wasn't the kind of thing a daughter should say to a father.
"I'm coming to the end of the line here, she said. There's a Holocaust on my womb."
He had such a complicated reaction to this that he couldn't speak. He disapproved of the metaphor: he wanted to tell her that one shouldn't compare one's personal unhappiness to the most horrible crime in history. Following closely behind that thought was a sense of sadness that his daughter wasn't an intellectual, and that if he tried to tell her why he objected to her metaphor she would probably find him pedantic and cold. But competing with all this was the recognition that whatever he might think about the figure of speech she'd used, she was in pain. He was struck by his own obliviousness: she gave him so much delight, so much comfort, even when she was in misery herself, that he usually failed to see her misery until she called his attention to it with a shout. And he thought about how odd it was that Ariel could so often give joy when she wasn't feeling any. Yeats wrote somewhere that "Man can embody the truth but he cannot know it." Schiller had never understood what he'd meant by that, but the idea made sense when applied to Ariel. She gave joy more often than she felt it.
He felt as if he should ask her over--that would be the fatherly thing to do. But he was looking forward to seeing the young woman tonight.
Occasionally she could almost read his mind. "Can I come over?" she said.
"I have an appointment tonight." He didn't want to say that he was seeing Heather; he didn't want to say that the appointment was a party. "I should be home by eleven. I'd love to see you then."
"Its okay," she said forlornly. "I'm busy later. I have a date with Victor Mature. I have a client in your neighborhood tomorrow morning. Maybe we could have a little bite for lunch?"
He hesitated, and she caught the hesitation. "I know. You have to write. A real writer doesn't break for lunch. Sorry, sorry, sorry."
In his own muted way, he was a tyrant, and he had always been a tyrant. Everyone around him had always been at the mercy of his inflexible schedule.
"Maybe we could get together tomorrow night," she said.
"I'd like that."
"I'll call you in the afternoon."
He felt ashamed of the way he had reduced her to begging for his time.
When he got off the phone he felt dizzy and he lay down.
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Meet the Author
BRIAN MORTON is the author of four previous novels, including Starting Out in the Evening, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and was made into an acclaimed feature film, and A Window Across the River, which was a Book Club selection of the Today show. He teaches at New York University, the Bennington Writing Seminars, and Sarah Lawrence College, where he also directs the writing program. He lives in New York.
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This book is filled with characters that people can love. You may not like them, but you can feel for them and care about them. We see the fall and learn about the rise of a never so popular writer, the grad student who feels the need to help him out, and the typical middle-aged daughter who wants love more than anything. The story is heart-felt and touching, and the ending is left open. We, the audience, are given the chance to dream about what will happen to these characters.
I loved reading this book. For me it evoked New York City and its people. Perhaps one needs to be past forty to begin to empathize, appreciate and understand the characters in the book. A great book.