Starting Out in the Evening

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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 meeting - and the unexpected ...
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0425168697 Trade Paperback. Autographed by Author, 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 meeting - and 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.

Awarded the 1999 Koret Jewish Book Award for Fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Morton, a magazine editor whose only previous novel was The Dylanist, is a deceptively simple writer. The beginning of his new book is so apparently artless it gives no hint of the subtle, tender and moving story to come. Leonard Schiller is an elderly novelist, one of the few surviving members of the Upper West Side Jewish intellegentsia of the 1940s and '50s. He has written two books that achieved some good critical attention, two more that disappeared virtually without a trace, but he still labors on--obese, slow and subject to heart murmurs, but trying doggedly to complete a last work before his life gives out. It is a life that has been devoted so singlemindedly to his work, as a sort of cultural duty, that he is unprepared for a dizzy rush of emotion when graduate student Heather Wolfe erupts vividly into his restricted orbit. A worshipful acolyte, she wants to write her thesis on him, perhaps restore him to a place in the literary pantheon. Leonard's daughter Ariel, sweet-naturedly muddling her way through life, a perpetual loser in love, has her own agenda: a baby before it is too late--but with whom? The three interrelate, eventually with Ariel's old flame Casey, too, in many surprising and often touching ways. Their stories are illuminated always with the gentle grace of Morton's writing--for as the narrative builds, it turns out to be far from artless. Only a rather too easy feel-good ending, which leaves an important question unresolved, slightly mars what is otherwise an elegiac tale at once strong-minded and profoundly compassionate. (Jan.) (PW best book of 1998)
Library Journal
In beautifully nuanced scenes, Heather Wolfe, a 24-year-old graduate student, forces a meeting with broken-down Leonard Schiller, an out-of-print, sick old writer whose early works, written during the heyday of 1940s and 1950s New York intellectualism, forever changed Heather's life. Targeted as the subject of Heather's master's thesis, Schiller quickly falls under the seductive promise of her admiration, much to the distress of Ariel, his 39-year-old daughter, whose own struggles with failed romance and childlessness derail her energy. Morton (The Dylanist, HarperCollins, 1991) demonstrates an astonishingly sensitive appreciation for his characters as he reveals with unnerving accuracy the most private thoughts not only of his women but of the dying old man as well. These mismatched souls gradually realize that their individual journeys, which they thought were drawing to a close, are in fact new beginnings. Morton's respect for his characters and his audience is a quiet literary triumph. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/97.]Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., Mich.
From the Publisher

"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 

Library Journal
Matching Carlene Bauer’s Frances and Bernard for its quiet power, nuanced intimacy, careful construction, and focus on the literary life, Morton’s title may please readers who are interested in novels about writers and the heartfelt repercussions of relationships. Leonard Schiller is an aging novelist, all but lost now to obscurity and facing the end of his days with the dream of writing one last work. Into his life storms the ambitious Heather Wolfe, a young graduate student intent on making Schiller the subject of her thesis and the key to her career—before she even meets him she is dreaming of editing the Portable Schiller. Morton’s novel advances in graceful arcs as he traces how the two relate, and mixes into their relationship Schiller’s adult daughter, Ariel, and her own concerns and ties. A beautifully realized novel, it holds the same kind of elegiac grace as Frances and Bernard.

(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780425168691
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 7/1/1999
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.32 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Brian Morton

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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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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First Chapter


Heather was wearing the wrong dress. It had seemed like a good idea in the morning--it was a tight little black thing; she'd looked fantastic in the mirror--but now she was thinking that she should have worn something demure. This was a foolish dress to meet your intellectual hero in.

Waiting in the coffee shop for the great man to arrive, Heather was squirming with nervousness, and she began to wonder why she was here--why she had gone to such lengths to meet this man, when she knew he couldn't possibly be as interesting in person as he was in his books. She had a wild urge to flee--to scribble a note of apology, leave it with the waiter, and drive all the way back to Providence. But she stayed where she was. She was nervous; she was a little scared; but she could live with that. Fear of any undertaking, to her way of thinking, was usually a reason to go ahead with it.

The door opened and a man came in from the cold. He was wearing an enormous coat--a coat that was like a house--and a big, furry, many-flapped hat. He peeled off the hat and stopped for a moment in front of the cash register, stamping off the snow. He was wearing galoshes.

They had never met, but he picked her out instantly, and he came toward her, smiling. Old, fat, bald, leaning awkwardly on a cane. The man of her dreams.


I can't believe it's you," she said, as he pressed her hand and sat heavily across from her.

What she wanted to say was: You've been dear to me since I was a girl. You were one of my life-teachers. You understood me; you helped me understand myself. If reading a book is a naked encounter between two people, I have known you nakedly for years.

She wanted to say wild things to him, but here he was, struggling out of his coat, and he seemed terribly old and terribly frail, and above all terribly unfamiliar, and she suddenly felt shy. When she read his work, it was as if he poured his soul directly into hers, and they mixed. Now there were bodies in the way.

She felt as if she were in the middle of an earthquake. The furniture in her mind was sliding around. Reading his work, she had always thought of him as a contemporary. In fact--as she'd known, of course, with her rational mind--he was closer to her grandparents' age. And though she'd entertained many imaginary pictures of him over the years, it had never occurred to her that he might be fat. To her mind, genius was gaunt.

He was older and larger than she'd imagined, and somehow both softer and harder. His hand was soft when she shook it; his face was saggy, like a poached egg. In his eyes, though, there was something chilly and ironic. He was an odd combination of the soft and the shrewd. He looked like a gangster's uncle.

"I can't believe it's me either," Schiller said--breathing heavily, looking for a place to rest his cane.


Heather ordered a salad, a BLT, and coffee; Schiller asked for a baked potato--no butter, no sour cream--and tea. "I'm on the Pritikin diet," he said to her after the waiter left. "I had a heart attack last year, and the year before that. I'm not allowed to put butter on anything anymore."

"That must have been very scary," she said, trying to sound like the most sympathetic woman ever born.

"They do tend to concentrate the mind."

This was a literary reference, but she couldn't remember from where. Her mind was reeling. She was sitting across from him! He was here! He was here, but he was dying. She felt thankful that she had come to him in time.

The waiter returned with her salad, his potato, her coffee and his tea, and in the momentary confusion of platters she tried to bring herself down to earth.

"Are you working on a new novel?" she said.

"I'm working on a novel, yes. But I've been working on it so long I'm not sure you could call it new." He sipped his tea, with, she thought, a notable delicacy.

Remember the way he drinks his tea. Remember the softness of his hands. Remember the way he looks down at the table when he speaks. Remember.

He asked her a few questions about herself: where she was born, where she'd gone to school, whether she liked New York. It struck her as odd that she should have to tell him these things. Didn't he know her? During the years she'd been reading his work, he had so often helped her understand herself that she'd sometimes felt as if he cared about her.

"So," he said finally, "you've embarked on a project of questionable merit. You're working on a study. Of me." He shook his big head sadly.

This was why she was here. This was why she had worked up the courage to find him, and this was why she had come to New York. She was writing her master's thesis about Schiller's novels.

The thesis, in her mind, was only the first step: her real goal was to write a book about his work. She was twenty-four years old; she hoped to have her thesis written before her twenty-fifth birthday and a book contract in her hands before her twenty-sixth.

She had grandiose daydreams. Schiller had written four novels, and all of them were out of print. In the 1940s, when most of William Faulkner's work was out of print, the critic Malcolm Cowley reintroduced him to the public with a volume called The Portable Faulkner. It was this collection that made American readers see they had a genius in their midst; if not for Cowley, Faulkner might have died in obscurity. Heather was already thinking about a Portable Schiller.

"I think it's a very worthy project," she said, lamely.

He took off his glasses and polished them slowly with a handkerchief "I m flattered by your interest. And if you're intent on doing this study, I won't try to talk you out of it. But I'm sorry to have to say that I won't be able to help you with it either."

She tried to take this in. He hadn't been encouraging on the phone, but neither had he told her flatly that he wouldn't help.


"Ten years ago, it would have made me very happy. But I'm an old man now."

"What does being old have to do with it?"

"I'm trying to finish a novel," he said. "It will probably be the last novel I write. My only remaining goal in life is to finish it. I'm not in good health, and I need to avoid anything that distracts me from that goal. Your project would be a distraction, Miss Wolfe. A very flattering distraction, but a distraction nonetheless. "

He sighed. It struck her as a poetic sigh, but she was prepared to find poetry in anything he did.

She looked at him closely. The folds of skin on his face sagged disastrously; like many old men, he looked strangely like an old woman.

In a way, what he'd said was what she would have wanted him to say. She thought his devotion to his art was beautiful. He was a hero: a wounded hero, dragging his frail body toward his goal.

"I understand. And I respect your decision. But I can't help thinking that you've made up your mind too quickly. Maybe the best thing for your health would be to have a fascinating young women in your life."

He'd been about to put his glasses back on, but now he put them down and examined her, with an expression of curiosity and amusement. It was as if he was looking at her for the first time.

She didn't look away. It occurred to her that the eyes don't really age. These were the eyes that his friends and lovers had looked into when he was young.

With no attempt to hide her scrutiny, she studied his face. What she saw there, what she thought she saw, was strength, pain, loneliness, bitterness, and the struggle against bitterness. And, of course, time. In the slackness of his skin, in his fallen, half-womanly face, she saw the way time breaks the body down.

For a moment the stare felt like a sexualized encounter. By the time Schiller looked away, she felt as if they had passed beyond sex. She didn't know what she meant by that, but that was how it felt.

"Give me a chance, damn it. You'll be happy you got to know me."

She wanted to take things further; she wanted to say something she might regret. She knew what she wanted to say; she just didn't know if she should say it.

But whenever Heather felt uncertain about whether to do something, she did it. She had decided long ago that you never learn anything by holding back.

"Maybe," she said, "you'll even fall in love with me."

"You're an odd young woman," he murmured, with a look of prim disapproval. He was blushing. She had never seen an old man blush.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2000


    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2000

    Heartbreaking but beautiful

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2010

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