The Half-Life of Happiness

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Overview

"[Casey] is an astute observer of the ruses as well as the private confrontations that govern our behavior."
--The Washington Post Book World

In The Half-life of Happiness, National Book Award winner John Casey brings us a family portrait rendered with masterful precision--and unwavering compassion. On a spring afternoon in Virginia, progressive attorney Mike Reardon strolls downtown Charlottesville feeling terrific. He surveys the elements in his appealing life: filmmaker wife Joss, his clever and canny ...

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Overview

"[Casey] is an astute observer of the ruses as well as the private confrontations that govern our behavior."
--The Washington Post Book World

In The Half-life of Happiness, National Book Award winner John Casey brings us a family portrait rendered with masterful precision--and unwavering compassion. On a spring afternoon in Virginia, progressive attorney Mike Reardon strolls downtown Charlottesville feeling terrific. He surveys the elements in his appealing life: filmmaker wife Joss, his clever and canny daughters, the bohemian characters that share his seven-acre haven on the Rivanna River.

But Mike's blissful certainty is to be short-lived. A friend's suicide and Joss's affair with a mercurial woman turn Mike's world upside-down. Then Mike discovers the erotic quicksilver of the political campaign and so begins a farcical run for office that consumes all their lives. Here too--through Casey's brilliant rendering of Mike's sensitive, perceptive daughters--is the story of two children who grow up painfully aware of their parents' strengths and weaknesses. Superbly plotted, buoyed with humor and hope, The Half-life of Happiness embraces the accidents and choices that shape our lives and the lives of those we love.

"Riveting and beautifully written."  --San Francisco Chronicle-Examiner

"A major novelist at the top of his form, Casey captures not only the texture of individual lives, but the shape and momentum of all lives that begin with the best intentions, then stray off course. . . . A wise and forgiving book as well as an entertaining one."
--Chicago Tribune

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Editorial Reviews

Stephanie Zacharek

There's a school of writing that seems to take as one of its tenets the idea that men who are excessively proud, clueless, insecure and ultimately emotionally helpless are really very interesting people, if we just get to know them a bit. To be fair, The Half-Life of Happiness isn't quite as Richard Ford-y as all that. John Casey -- whose Spartina won the 1989 National Book Award -- has peopled his new novel with carefully wrought characters, men and women (and children) alike, and almost every one has his or her little nasty streaks and curiously likable qualities. It's just that, ultimately, he wants us to feel the most sympathy for his main character, Mike Reardon (family man, lawyer, principled liberal). He might have succeeded if his narrative hadn't gotten bogged down with excess emotional and physical details.

Mike overexplains and overanalyzes everything, which annoys his two small daughters, Edith (from whose point of view part of the story is told) and Nora, and eventually helps alienate him from his wife, Joss, a maker of experimental films and a champion wisecracker. Mike's life suddenly plunges into turmoil: His closest friend commits suicide, his wife falls madly in love with another friend's girlfriend, and he decides, in one of his less-rational moments, to run for a congressional seat, a move that ends up causing embarrassment and distress for himself and his family. (His reasoning for running for office is never really clear, other than that, in his desperation, he has to race toward something.)

When Mike's friends and family gang up on him, accusing him (sometimes with jaunty bonhomie and sometimes with brutal coldness) of overdissecting everything, you feel a stab of sympathy for him -- he is, after all, just being the only kind of guy he knows how to be. But we lose patience with him before long because the whole novel is an overdissection, a tea tray piled too high with annoyingly witty dinner-party banter, dull descriptions of political machinations and tedious analysis of feelings. Shortly after learning of his wife's infidelity, Mike wanders unwittingly into a lesbian bar and, over a drink, gazes in befuddlement at a soap opera on TV: "On the screen, another man and a woman spoke to each other inconclusively, and the program was over. It occurred to him that he was caught in the daily episodes of a soap opera that Joss wrote, that Joss and Bonnie ... wrote. As in the soap opera he'd just seen, there was an underlying situation that everybody talked about without getting anywhere, without clarifying or resolving anything, without doing anything to move out of their semi-erotic miasma."

Casey knows how to make us feel something for his characters, but they're pinpricks of feeling scattered sparsely throughout a very long book -- neither the characters' emotional struggles nor the story is epic enough to engage us at such length. He has a gift for capturing and outlining fleeting, deeply confusing emotions with precision and clarity, but by the end of nearly 400 pages, it seems as if he's merely done a good job at pinning down so many butterflies' wings -- as if it were true that he who ends with the most wings, wins. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Casey's much-admired Spartina won the National Book Award in 1989, and it's no pleasure to report that his new book is a rambling affair that gives only occasional glimpses of the shining talent on show there. It is the story of Mike Reardon, a young lawyer whom after a fling as a Washington congressional aide, has settled into a country practice in Charlottesville, Va. He has a feistily erratic wife, Joss, two bright little daughters, Edith and Nora, an adored mother-in-law and a circle of friends who seem like part of the family. Gradually, things in this seemingly Edenic existence begin to fall apart. A buddy kills himself, Joss's drinking becomes a problem, she begins a lesbian affair and Mike is talked into running an apparently hopeless campaign for Congress. Meanwhile, Edith and Nora reflect alternately on the course of events as they struggle to keep afloat in a turmoil of conflicting loyalties. The problem with the novel is that the reader never gets to know these people as well as Casey evidently does, which means that many of this long book's long scenes drift; there are numerous passages that could have used a stern editorial pencil. There are pleasures, to be sure: some of the scenes in the campaign are sharp and funny (if by no means as plugged-in as Primary Colors), and the concluding pages have a sweet dying fall. But the facts that Mike, for all his virtues, never quite comes to lif,e and that the girls sound too much alike, are distinct flaws in a book that depends on their conviction and weight.
Regina Marler
His prose shuttles smoothly between American colloquialism, lyrical exactitude, and the lightning wit of the Reardons at home. -- New York Observer
People
Somehow Casey gets everything right...Marvelously insightful...this novel never slackens as it draws us steadily deeper into the psyches of his delightfully and excruciatingly recognizable men and women.
Lorna Sage
John Casey's writing creates the same sense of space that you get from the best nonfiction....You feel that the subject won't go away if the author blinks or is distracted, that these lives and landscapes are always there, even when no one is looking. -- New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A lovingly detailed excavation of a failed marriage—and of several damaged lives. It's becoming clear that Casey (the NBAwinning Spartina, 1989, etc.) is at heart a domestic novelist, fascinated by the waxing and waning of American marriages and careers. His latest, set largely in and around Charlottesville, from the late '70s to the present, traces the decline of Mike and Joss's partnership. He's a lawyer, Joss is an artist, and their lives, at first, seem relatively serene. Mike is the more sanguine of the two, believing that "marriage had an independent soul. . . . that most problems could be solved by waiting, that there was a natural stabilizing grace which would sooner or later reach them." It's possibly because of this belief that he's slow to understand Joss's restlessness, or anticipate what will happen when she strikes up an increasingly intimate friendship with a friend's fianc‚e. When Joss finally leaves Mike for a woman, it's not only their marriage that unravels: Their comfortable circle of friends, a bright, liberal, accomplished group of strivers, is shredded by the resulting fallout. Matters become worse when Mike agrees to run for a congressional seat, in an attempt to reassert his competence and talent, his mastery of the world. The campaign soon goes humiliatingly awry. Watching all of this with increasing exasperation and disbelief are Joss and Mike's two unsparingly perceptive daughters, Edith and Nora. Casey's very precise prose, and his mastery of the time and place, keep the plot percolating. And few write so believably about truly bright people, or about the dense particulars of family life. But the narrative, while never dull, often seems tooluxuriantly detailed, too filled with minor incidents and fleeting conversations. Casey is far too wise to attempt to turn one marriage into a metaphor for American ills, but without some overarching theme the work seems somewhat exhausting, and obsessively focused. Still, it's undoubtedly a moving work, and often in its portrait of intelligent people haplessly adrift, a convincing one.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375706080
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/28/1999
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Pages: 513
  • Sales rank: 980,026
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

John Casey was born in 1939 in Worcester, Massachusetts, and educated at Harvard College, Harvard Law School, and the University of Iowa. His previous novel, Spartina, won the 1989 National Book Award for fiction. He lives with his wife in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he is Professor of English Literature at the University of Virginia.

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Read an Excerpt

The Half-Life of Happiness


By John Casey

Vintage Books USA

Copyright © 1999 John Casey
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780375706080


Chapter One


For no reason he could think of Mike felt terrific. What had seemed a smaller life in a smaller town now seemed as large as the clear spring sky. He took an extra turn around Courthouse Square and was happy to see faces opened up, even the faces of fellow lawyers, even the faces of those who did not necessarily bargain in good faith.

The pretty tax specialist rang her bicycle bell at him and pedaled by in her slit skirt. He felt no base stirring, nothing but benign sympathy for how good she must feel coasting home with a breeze lifting her hair. During the winter on his walks home he'd often felt peppery grains of lust falling on the plain boiled meat of his day. Now he was full of serene benedictions. Here was another for the tap-dance teacher on her way to class, her springy ringlets crushed under a wool watch cap. (He'd once been unable to resist putting his hands on her hair at a party, and she'd said, "I wish I had a nickel for every guy who does that." Mike's wife had laughed and put her hand in. The tap teacher had said, "Maybe I could get into this." Later Mike had claimed she'd said this looking at him, and his wife had said, "Dream on, buster.") Now the tap teacher saw him and waved. As usual she looked a mess in her streetclothes, even a little squat and dumpy in her oversize sweater and leg-warmers. But the first time Mike dropped his daughter Nora off at class, he'd watched the teacher warm up, peeling off layer after layer down to her red leotard and silver tights. She wasn't thin, but trim and compact and, when she moved, as bouncy as a rubber ball. Her leotard was dark red around her short small waist but stretched to pale rose over her hips and cannonball bottom. Now she smiled across the street and yelled, "Nora's doing great!" Mike waved back and dipped his head, a well-behaved, pleased dad.

He dropped by the secondhand bookstore to say hello to the clerk who worked the evening shift, a graduate student from the deep South whose mouth was so wide and full that when she drawled, "Hey there, Mike," and broke into a smile, Mike imagined exquisitely slow hydraulic pressures moving her cheeks and lips.

On his way past Martha Jefferson Hospital, he saw the family doctor, Mary Ames. She looked up and said, "Hi, M-M-Mike." She only stuttered when speaking to grown-ups. With Edith and Nora she was fluent. Mike had a crush on her, but it was high-minded, based mostly on gratitude for how kind and precise she'd been when she'd diagnosed Nora's idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura. Mike had been wildly alarmed, and Dr. Ames had calmed him, holding his hand and explaining every word. Purpura--bruising. Thrombocytes--blood platelets. Penic--deficiency. Idiopathic--of unknown origin. "There's an old joke," she'd said. "Idiopathic means that the patient's got the p-p-pain, and the doctor's an idiot."

Mike had a theory about his little crushes. Like all lawyers, he formulated lots of theories to justify his clients. His off-the-job theories were to justify his off-the-job habits. This particular theory depended on a distinction between dangerous crushes and harmless ones. Dangerous crushes he compared to aerobic bacteria. They thrived on exposure to the oxygen of possibility: signs of response, opportunity, reported inclination of the crush-object. Harmless crushes he compared to anaerobic bacteria. They thrived in a sealed fantasy but died on being exposed to the open air: a further conversation that placed the crush-object in a taboo zone (family friend, girlfriend of a friend, professional relationship to the family, etc.) or--even more deadly to the fantasy bacteria--a conversation in which the crush-object said something patently stupid, snorted unpleasantly when she laughed, or didn't get the joke.

If he sensed that a crush might contain dangerous aerobic bacteria, there were two solutions. He could invite her home, and the crush would become friendly with his wife, Joss. Mike had used this as an extra prevention with his law associate Ganny, who was now friends with Joss and on his roster of safely adored women. Or he could introduce the crush to his single male friends. He had recently tried this solution for the graduate student with the hydraulic smile. He had yet to hear from his friend Bundy how their date had gone.

Had he carved out an arguable qualification to the Sermon on the Mount? "But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." Matthew 5:28.

For someone who was no longer a practicing Catholic, Mike spent a lot of time spinning Jesuit spiderwebs. But this spring day was too bright to spend niggling and spinning. He looked with affection at the muddy little Rivanna River eddying under the Free Bridge. He quickened his pace on the city-maintained road, past the last store, past Ezra's gym, where the paved street turned away from the river and where a little spur of dirt road led to his own one-lane wooden bridge. He crossed it and caught sight of his house up on the wooded ridge. A ramshackle house, as cluttered as a pharaoh's tomb with things Joss or he might need in middle life. Garden tools, canoe paddles and fishing gear, their daughters' toys and sports equipment, Joss' movie gear sprawled on the industrial shelving in her studio, mismatched furniture. The girls' wardrobes were filled with four versions of clothing: Joss' mother's gifts of jeune-fille-de-bonne-famille dresses, Mike's notions of outfits for the great outdoors, and Joss' indulgence of their wish to look like the other kids at school and her own wish that they be the prettiest girls at the peace march. All these things spilled from closets and racks and chests so that the whole house was a series of partly assembled kits for family happiness.

The house, like their marriage, was a place for storing years that weren't ever quite what was planned but which he believed might still be made whole by someone turning up with the missing piece.

Mike was early picking up Nora at her tap class. It was on the top floor of the McGuffey Art Center, an old red-brick public school which the city had given over to an association of artists who paid nominal rent and provided classes and exhibits for the students and citizens of Charlottesville. Mike was the lawyer for the association, whose legal difficulties were minor but whose intramural disputes often needed a disinterested patient audience.

Mike went to Bundy's studio to ask him how his date with the graduate student had gone.

"'Slow hydraulic smile,'" Bundy said. "You got the slow part right. Maybe I'll go for slow when I get to be your age."

Mike said, "I'll bet you got into one of your let's-stir-things-up moods. I'll bet you told her about how to gut a deer. I'll bet you--"

"Nope," Bundy said. "I was as nice as you please. She was--what was that other thing you said?--languorous. She was so languorous when she danced it was like there was a sandbag in one hip and she'd move some and all that sand would pour over into the other hip. And then she'd try again and sag back the other way. I could have boiled an egg."

"Well, maybe you shouldn't have--"

"Slow's not so bad if it's on the beat. She couldn't keep time to a bass drum."

"Okay, okay."

"She did say one good thing. When I took her home she said, 'I suppose you'd like to hear I had a wonderful time.' She waited a second and then she said, 'I had a good time.'" Bundy laughed.

"Okay, okay," Mike said. "I've got a better idea. Come with me to pick up Nora at her tap class. You want someone to dance with, take a look at the dance teacher."

"I've seen her. She comes dragging in looking like a dust ball someone swept out from under the bed."

"Wait'll you see her in her dance outfit."

Bundy came up the stairs, grumbling the whole way. He brightened up at the sight of the color photo on the studio door--the dance teacher in midair wearing silver shoes, red short shorts, an American flag vest, and a top hat. A toothpaste-ad smile.

The title under the photo said: Polly Trueheart. Tap, Jazz, Modern.

Mike opened the door a crack.

From inside there came a screech as harsh as a crow's caw. Then the shrill scramble of a tape rewind.

Polly shouted, "No, don't stop! I don't care how bad it is, don't stop!"

Bundy said to Mike, "Yeah. I'd sure love to go dancing with her."

Mike opened the door wider and caught sight of Nora. The tape hissed and then played the vamp for "Singin' in the Rain." There was a clatter of taps as the line of kids marched forward unevenly.

"You're supposed to be in two rows," Polly shouted. "Don't stop! Raymond, you're in the back row!"

The kids were carrying furled umbrellas, whose tips they now hit on the floor, blurring the rhythm further.

"Dah DUM du di dum," Polly shouted. "Now turn and..."

The girl next to Nora struggled to open her umbrella and got bumped by the boy next to her. The girl turned toward him as her umbrella popped open. Nora let out a high-pitched sliver of a sound.

Nora was sitting on the floor holding her eye. Mike shoved his way to her. He knelt beside her. She wasn't crying but she was whining and panting. He said, "Let me take a look, honey."

She yelled, "No!"

He started to coax her, but she lowered her hand to look at it.

Mike said, "Jesus Christ!"

Nora put both hands over her eye and said, "Dad?"

Mike scooped her up.

In the hall Bundy said, "I've got my truck here. Out back."

Bundy drove them to the emergency room at Martha Jefferson. Nora stayed curled up in Mike's lap, making little noises, but not crying. Bundy jumped out and opened Mike's door and stormed in ahead of him. By the time Mike got inside, Bundy was at the front desk saying, "I'll move my pickup as soon as we see an eye doctor."

Mike managed to get his wallet out of his suit coat and give the Blue Cross card to the receptionist.

When a nurse tried to take Nora, she kicked her hand. Mike was somehow encouraged by this. He said, "Dr. Ames is her doctor. Dr. Mary Ames. But if you can get an eye doctor faster..."

Mike turned to Bundy. "It'll be okay, you might as well park it."

Bundy looked all around the room as if deciding who to start with.

An intern arrived and said to Nora, "What's your name, honey?"

Mike said, "Tell her your name, honey."

Nora whispered her name.

Mike said, "Nora."

The intern said, "My name's Sue. I'm a doctor. You want to let me take a peek, Nora?"

Nora didn't say anything. The intern said, "You're her father? Well, let's go right in here, away from all these people, and take a look." She started to lead them to a room but stopped to look at Mike.

Mike said, "It was an umbrella. I don't know if it was the tip or a spoke."

"Uh-huh." She touched Nora's forehead and then touched Mike's. "I think your daddy needs to sit down, Nora."

"In there," Mike said. "It'll be easier for you if I hold her. I did a lot of this in the Navy." He was about to lie wildly and say he'd been a medic, but the intern put an arm across his back and guided him into an examining room.

"Okay, babe," he said to Nora. "The doctor's on the right track here, so we can ease up." His voice was strange to him, floating uselessly in the small room. He sat Nora on the gurney and held her free hand.

He closed his eyes when the intern started to take Nora's other hand away. He tried to make himself look. When he opened his eyes, Nora's good eye was shut and the intern's gloved hands were cupped around the other eye.

A nurse came in and took Nora's other hand, squeezing in against her.

The intern said, "Don't move, Nora. I'll be right back."

Mike said, "This is the hospital where you were born, babe. They'll make sure you're okay."

He touched Nora's back. It was hard as a turtle's.

All this nonsense he was saying was as useless as Bundy's stomping around the lobby.

Mary Ames came in followed by a male doctor who Mike supposed was the eye specialist. When Mike started to ask her what was going on she held up her hand and tipped her head toward the male doctor--it must be the eye specialist, Mike thought, we're all deferring. The thing that the eye doctor had around his head wasn't a reflector, as Mike had taken it to be, but a sort of magnifying glass. The eye doctor swiveled it down and hovered over Nora's eye.

A bony man with a bony face. He hardly moved. He didn't even say "Mmm." Mike had a feeling this guy would say the worst in the same monotone he'd say the not-so-bad.

Mary Ames moved next to Mike, and put an arm around his back and a hand on his arm.

Mike couldn't see anything except the eye doctor's magnifying glass. The eye doctor dabbed around Nora's eye and then hovered some more.

He told a nurse to hold another light to one side. "Up. Now left. Good. Right there."

Mike began to have confidence in the guy's monosyllables.

Nora, who'd been amazingly still, wiggled her feet. The eye doctor said, "Don't."

He didn't even say "Mmm" when he clicked off his light. He said to the nurse, "Prep her. Use my OR. I'll need you and Dr. Akerblad. Page me when Dr. Akerblad gets there."

And he was gone.

Mike looked at Mary Ames. He said, "Isn't he going to explain anything?"

She said, "Mmm, maybe later. I don't think it's that serious. If it was really serious I don't think he'd go away. What I saw looked like not a whole lot more than a scratch, but I just got a glimpse. He's very very good."

The nurse had stretched Nora out on another gurney. Mary Ames said to her, "You're not supposed to talk. And don't put your hands near your face. If you'd like me to stay with you, give my hand a little squeeze."

Mike took Nora's other hand and said, "You'll be all right, babe. One thing about eyes is they don't do anything that hurts."

"Uh-huh. We don't want you twitching or blinking, so we make you real comfy. You won't be all the way asleep, but we'll give you something that makes you feel all relaxed and snug. What I saw was a little tear in the skin right near the corner of your eye, and that's the thing you probably feel. Then there's this tiny tiny little scratch that the eye doctor probably wants to just take a look at."

The nurse, Mary Ames, and Nora all swept away together.

Mike still felt the alert nerve that ran through him that had been receiving the staticky rush of Nora's wordless broadcast. Now he'd lost contact. He was in one of Joss' movie clichés now--"Alameida calling China Clipper, Alameida calling China Clipper...Come in, China Clipper."

Joss loved to juggle them for fun. She wished life to be that simple; she wouldn't allow life to be that simple. Now it was that simple--here he was nothing but attention--an attention that was as anxious and helpless as Nora, as precariously flying through clouds. "Alameida calling China Clipper." He thought he should call Joss. Then he thought he should wait to call Joss until he could say, "Look, first off, everything's okay now, but we had a little scare."

And he should see if Bundy was still waiting--of course he would be.

As though he'd been in a bathroom he checked his tie, cuffs, fly, shoes. That reminded him he was a lawyer: Was Polly Trueheart negligent in having a room full of seven-to-nine-year-olds tap-dance with umbrellas? Now, there was a cutie-pie who wouldn't be darkening the door of his fantasy....

Bundy was filling the waiting room with his pacing, making everyone nervous with his menacing energy. Bundy said he'd stay and keep Mike company. Mike had to come out and say he'd rather be alone.

Mike called home. Nobody there. Joss might reproach him anyway, say in an iron-hard voice, "Thanks for letting me know." Joss and Bundy had that in common--their reproaches were never gentle. They had only two gears--reproachful high-speed forward or self-lacerating apologetic reverse.

He stood in a corner where he could look out two windows at once. He thought with gratitude of Mary Ames' cooing at Nora.

He wondered if Mary Ames liked treating children because she didn't stutter when she spoke to them. Or had it worked the other way--by caring for children, she'd stopped stuttering with them? Would her gentleness be boring in the long run? When she was giving medical explanations the mix of hard and soft was just right, but what if she never stopped being nice, never showed a tooth?

His occasional fantasy--which even now flickered briefly through his mind--had her saying, "I don't know what's come over me--I feel like a completely different person," so some revision was necessary. But his Mary Ames fantasy was based on the one time he'd said something funny to her and she'd become helpless with laughter, squeezing tears out of the corners of her eyes and choking herself pink. He'd taken her hand and said with mock severity, "Doctor, control yourself," and she'd clung to his hand and laughed some more.

Could this man be alone for five minutes without dreaming about women? Can we forgive him for having a fantasy about his daughter's doctor at the very moment his daughter is going under the knife? It's not a rhetorical question. I know lots of men afflicted in this way who nevertheless lead normal productive lives. I'm joking. I guess I'm joking. But it makes it hard to take men seriously, if they just drift off into fantasy land when things get a little tough. One problem is that they then want some of their fairy tale acted out for them. And if you do, you can end up one of their thousand-and-one fantasies, as shelvable as all their other videocassettes. It's true, the man was genuinely in distress, and because there was nothing he could do, he slipped into a little displacement activity. Would I be criticizing him if he fantasized about, say, boats? Is the problem that our parents wanted us to be perfect, and the flip side (not even a conscious reverie, just a reflex) is we want them to have been perfect at the time they were the potent perfectionists in our lives? Is this just an American middle-class problem? Let's let the boy get on with it.

It occurred to Mike that Joss and Edith might be at Edmond and Evelyn's. He tried that number. No answer. He got a little cross. Where the hell was everyone?

He had one spasm of terrible worry--Nora losing her eye. All right, then, take one of mine. I'm halfway through my life, done all the stuff you need to look good for--college, gone around the world, got married. Now all there is to do is write a few briefs, putter around the house.

He was relieved when the receptionist brought him his Blue Cross card and had some more forms to fill out and sign.

Maybe this was just another trip to the hospital. With the four of them plus the dog there wasn't a month that went by without a trip to some doctor. Just family life--a little wait, a little anxiety, and then you got to go home. A comforting superstition: if enough goes wrong in small ways, it wards off disaster. Just sit here and be dumb for a little while. He picked up a Ladies' Home Journal and read it, including the twenty-day shape-up program.

That's what he was doing when Joss came in. She looked like a whirling dervish just standing in the doorway--her swept-back eyes flicking from side to side, her nose jutting, her collar with one cocked wing, the weight of her solid body unsettled. It was his job to calm her down. He tried jauntiness. He waved the magazine toward the corridor leading into the hospital maze and said, "No news yet. Probably everything's okay. Mary Ames is with her, but some eye doc is doing the work."

"What work? What happened? What are they doing?"

It took him a moment to think of where to begin, which made Joss frantic.

He said, "How'd you get here? When I called there was no answer."

"Never mind. Bundy drove by. But what's going on?"

"Okay. Mary Ames thinks there's a little tear in the skin. The skin, right? Not the eye. Maybe a scratch on the eye."

"Thinks? Doesn't she know?"

"The eye doctor did the examination. She was just looking over his shoulder. He didn't say anything."

"Didn't you ask?"

Mike felt dumb. He sighed. He thought of explaining that he was being slow because he'd already gone through the frantic part and now...he wanted to be as calm as sleep. He also was trying to think of just why it was he hadn't asked the eye doctor. It seemed to him now that he should have. He finally said, "Mary Ames said that, if it was really serious, he would have said. We didn't really go into it in front of Nora."

Joss looked around the room.

Mike said, "So we have to wait. Want to sit down?"

Joss went off to the front desk.

Sometimes they danced well together, sometimes they didn't.

Joss was talking a blue streak to the receptionist, who was listening amiably.

Mike believed in the essences of things. He had no specific belief, such as Neoplatonism, but he liked the idea of things having deep cores inside to which they could retreat to cure themselves of disorder.

Joss looked around the room again, as the receptionist pointed out someone. Joss trotted down the hall, unignorably energetic.

Mike, in spite of his Jesuit schooling, had a Franciscan notion of souls, which is that pretty much everything has a soul.

Joss came back up the corridor, walking briskly but apparently somewhat calmed by whoever it was she'd chased down.

Because Mike had this Franciscan tendency (animism, really, in Catholic robes) he believed that marriage too had an invisible soul that existed independent of Joss and him. He thought that most problems could be solved by waiting, that there was a natural stabilizing grace which would sooner or later reach them.

Joss came back and sat down. She crossed her legs and wiggled her foot. She twirled her wedding ring with her thumb.

On a practical level Mike knew that Joss didn't like to be stared at when she was fidgeting. He also knew that she didn't like him to be completely still, because that too implied disapproval. She preferred sympathetic but noncompeting nerves.

In her own calm moods she was very acute about the subtle tyrannies of marriage--the ones she was subject to and, to an extent, the ones she inflicted. In her calm moods she laughed at both of them. She had other moods, however, in which she was a hypochondriac of marriage. She could take what Mike took to be a normal short conversation and, putting it under her microscope, find dangerous bacilli crawling on every word.

For the first ten years of marriage Mike had been able to kid or coax her out of it. Lately he seemed to have lost the knack. Or perhaps the energy.

Once, at a very long French movie which Mike was liking but which was driving Joss nuts, she couldn't help crossing and recrossing her legs. She did this as carefully as she could, but still there was the sound of the upper regions of her panty hose slithering mesh against mesh. Mike finally whispered to her, "You're either trying to get me to leave or you're trying to arouse the man on the other side of you."

She'd laughed. Then she'd said, "Eros wanes." But then she'd laughed again. Nothing like that now. He was too precarious himself. He couldn't get himself to go back to the first stage of anxiety, which Joss was still in.

But just then--out of God knows what secondhand lore--no, it was out of an old Reader's Digest in his dentist's waiting room, he saw the double-column page, the pathetic drawing, and--out of his magpie memory--the title, "Doctor, Will My Child See Again?" The crucial fact of that case was that loss of vision in one eye had somehow resulted in loss of vision in the other eye.

He strained to remember the rest of the story. Surely some hope, maybe even a happy ending? But then his memory switched from visual to audio and he heard the dental hygienist call his name, the sound of the Reader's Digest plopping on the coffee table with exasperating nonchalance. Then even the audio went blank in the mint-mouthwash smell of the dentist's office.

He grunted a sort of snarl-moan, a noise Joss usually couldn't stand because he could never explain what he meant. Joss took his hand in both her hands, put her forehead on his shoulder. She said, "I'm sorry. You did a great job getting her here, kiddo."

You just couldn't ever tell. He said, "Well, look. I think it'll be okay. Except, boy, are you going to hate the way this eye doctor talks. Mr. Monotone." Joss lifted her head. She was on the edge of crying but laughed a little. She thought a second, then opened the fingers of one hand and rippled them closed again, which in Naples would have meant "stolen goods" but for Joss just now meant "so long as he does the job."

Mike said, "Yeah."

Leaning their shoulders against each other over the plastic arms of their chairs, for the moment they were as companionably exhausted as if they were dancing at the tag end of a daughter's wedding. What did they know about this guy? They didn't know beans really. So they shuffled gently once more around the floor, dazed but aware of each other, each feeling just how much the other hoped everything would be all right.

It was mostly good news. Nora would have to stay completely still for a couple of days. She'd have to wear an eye patch for a while after that. The "slight laceration" would in all likelihood heal nicely. The tear in the skin might result in a little droop to the corner of her eye, but that could be taken care of later with a little cosmetic surgery. Maybe it wouldn't even be necessary.

Joss wanted to go see her. Mike wanted to sit quietly for a bit. The eye doctor said to Joss, "You can look in, but she's still out. We had to give her a general anesthetic after all." And then he was off. Joss ran him down in ten steps with a clatter of her stacked-heel sandals. "What's her room number?"

"Ask the nurse."

"And I'd like to thank you," Joss said, with irritated correctness.

Mary Ames smiled at Mike and said, "She'll be just fine." She looked at him more closely and said, "Are you all r-r-r-right?"

"Yeah. What's the deal? That intern thought I was about to keel over too."

She took his hand, which pleased him, but it was to take his pulse. She said, "Mmm. You have this far-off l-luh-look."

"Just a long day." He took her hand. "It was very nice of you to stay." Joss was off wandering the hospital; he was filled with dizzy relief. He said, "Have I ever told you how attractive your stutter is?"

This man needs a guardian, a dog handler with a leash, someone. What is it with him? Is he lonely? Then why didn't it occur to him to come home and play with me? Okay--actually I can see he might have burned off a lot of high-octane child-worry. But there's an arrogance here--I remember Dr. Ames and she wasn't all that great-looking, so did he figure she would be flattered by any sort of attention from the big-suit lawyer? Dad's father was the same way, apparently, flirted his head off around Washington. But that was back in the days of the complete double-standard, when the women wore little capes made of a single fox pelt and they fastened it around their shoulders by clipping the little fox mouth to the tail. The fox head was whole, it even had little fox eyes made of glass. What were these women saying? "I'm a little furry creature"? The actresses all had little furry voices too--Jean Arthur, June Allyson. They used to lean way over backward and lift one foot when the hero kissed them. But Dr. Ames wasn't straightening the seams of her nylons, she was doing her job and being nice, so what's this guy's excuse?

She withdrew her hand and said, "I think someone must have given you a shot of sodium pentothal by mistake."

It took Mike a second to remember what sodium pentothal did--it made you babble. He blushed.

She patted his shoulder. He shook his head and said, "Look, I just meant...I'm very relieved. Thank you."

She said, "Okay. Nora will be awake in a couple of hours. She'd probably like to have you or your wife there then. It hasn't been, mmm, a real painful procedure for her, but she was a scared little g-girl."

Mike said, "It was really good of you to go with her."

"But don't let her talk too much. You do most of the talking, okay? That shouldn't be too hard for you."

All right. Dr. Ames, it turns out, can look out for herself. And handle him. Always a good move with him was to give him a job to do. So now this compulsive lawyer takes out his pocket appointment book and writes himself a memo. I still have a stack of his little leather appointment books--his billable hours to clients and in the same writing "Edith's birthday," "Nora's lacrosse game," "do times-tables with Edith." His client children.

Mike wrote: "Call: (1) Bundy (2) Polly Trueheart (3) Edith--where's Edith? Call Edmond and Evelyn to see--feed Edith."

It also crossed his mind to get some flowers for Mary Ames. He began to laugh at himself and tumbled into visions of his Mary Ames behavior run amok, the finishing touch a note with the flowers that said "S-s-sorry."

Joss showed up and plopped into a chair. "Poor little Ora-Nora. I just got a glimpse of her there breathing like a little fish. They have her hands tied down." Joss blew out her breath, stamped her feet in a short tattoo, and sat jiggling one leg. "I can't stand hospitals."

"Look," Mike said. "She won't wake up for a couple of hours. You want to go home and eat supper? Is Edith at Edmond and Evelyn's?"

"No. She's with Tyler."

Arrangements felt like rain to Mike--even sounded like rain--unsettling if you were out in the open, soothing if you were under your own roof. Back to the house? Edith's supper, Edith would like you to check her arithmetic, and exactly what do we tell her about Nora?--She gets a peculiar anguish when Nora gets hurt. And she has this eye fear--remember how she was about the prince in "Rapunzel" when he gets his eyes poked out in the thornbush? Wait'll she reads Oedipus....But then maybe you should be the one to come back here, a little continuity for Nora. Though I don't like to be alone out there without a car. Tyler's going out and he's taking Evelyn's car. Edmond and Evelyn are already gone in Edmond's truck, they're out owl watching.

"Let's just go," Mike said. "We can figure it out when we get home."

An hour at home was an hour at home. He said to Edith, "If it's two miles to the hospital, and I go ten miles an hour on Edmond's bicycle, how long will it take me?"

"Wait," Edith said and began writing with her pencil.

Nora would have told him to get lost. He'd already drilled Edith on her regular homework, but Edith liked to go for extra credit.

"It's...five," Edith said.

Mike looked at her paper. She'd conscientiously written "R = T/D." "Look, slugger," he said. "Didn't they tell you Teddy Roosevelt is Dead? TR equals D. Now, the R multiplies on this side, so it has to do the opposite on the other side. So T = D/R. And that's 2/10..."

"That's a fifth," Edith said.

Nora would have said, I got it part right when I said five.

"Okay," Mike said. "We're dealing with miles per hour and hours, so it's a fifth of an hour. So, now, how many minutes is a fifth of an hour?"

Edith squinted and then said, "Twelve?"

"Good. That's good. So just remember Teddy Roosevelt is Dead."

"Why are you such a traditionalist?" Joss said. "Why not True Rapture is Delightful? Thelma Ritter is Dowdy? Why not Total Recall is Dumb?"

What? What? Eight hours at the office, go to pick up Nora, two hours at the hospital, let's not forget a little math, about to ride a goddamn bicycle back to the hospital...and Joss is finding something to criticize? Can't fucking believe it. Can not...

He held still, except for grinding his molars, until the spurt of anger passed.

"Okay, Edith, get everything squared away. Don't forget to feed Miss Dudley. I'm off."

He's right, right? He could file a motion for summary judgment, case closed, right? But let's enlarge the context. I saw his jaw working, even though Mom was just hacking around. He got all huffy because she tweaked two things he was crazily proud of--his astounding memory and his Dad's-in-charge-when-things-are-really-tough, cool-under-fire, iron-man, I-wouldn't-ask-my-men-to-do-anything-I-wouldn't-do, anchors-aweigh act. He was sometimes funny, but not about that. I see now it was more fragile than it looked. Inside there was a fat little boy who quit his Boy Scout hike because his thighs chafed. A college freshman who quit crew because the coach said, "You're too short for any seat but bow and you're too fat for that." At the time he was only just under six feet and a few pounds overweight at one ninety. The coach figured he'd sting Dad and make him lean and mean. Typical macho-jock mentality. Coach didn't know he was talking to a ten-year-old fat boy. So Dad quit. That would have been great if Dad had let it go for a laugh. But he joined a canoe club and went crazy. It was crazy revenge but also crazy self-humiliation, because canoeing compared to crew was a no-status sport, sort of like learning to ride a donkey because you weren't good on a horse. This wasn't white-water thrills. It was flat-water racing. It's an Olympic sport that no one watches, sort of like archery or badminton. Poor Dad. I call him Dad, but I've got to remember he was nineteen. Two hours a day for two years. He still has his little trophies. And then he saw that he wasn't really going to get any better. I don't know how you know those things, but it came to him. And it came to him too that he just didn't like it that much. The part I love, though, is when he got on a four-man team and they were practicing two hours a day up and down the Potomac, paddling like mad in their genuflect position. Dad was hoping the rowing coach would go by and say, "Hey you--you're just what we're looking for." No. The person who said, "You're just what we're looking for" was a crazy sports doctor who was trying to find a way to measure the body temperature of endurance athletes. For reasons that will soon be apparent he couldn't get rowers or bicycle racers or even runners to volunteer. It shows you what these canoeists were like: The doctor fitted all four of Dad's canoe team with rectal thermometers. They were wired to a machine in the stern that recorded their temperatures and also gave a readout on a screen. So they paddled up and down the river with thermometers up their butts and wires down their legs and the doctor in a motorboat--I somehow imagine him with a German accent--saying things like, "Now ve vill stop and you vill drink a liter of vater."

I wish Dad had told me this much sooner.

Joining the canoe club because the rowing coach was mean to him--that's what he was doing when he rode a bicycle back to the hospital and spent the night on the floor beside Nora's bed.

But the rowing coach didn't ever notice him. Mom had to. If Dad could've had the gift of being right without...inflicting it...

So where was I in all this? I was being his dutiful daughter (An extra math problem? Let me at it!) who was nevertheless beginning to get angry, not because he was a demanding coach (I loved that), but angry with an anger that started out as self-loathing. Teddy Roosevelt is Dead, the names of the stars, how a pump works. I thought he knew everything, that he remembered everything. And I thought he wanted me to know everything and remember everything too. In a way, that second part is true: if he could have given me what he knew was a painless gift he would have. He didn't mean to inflict pain. He just had no idea about the panic of inadequacy I felt. No--that's not true--when I was eleven I told him how mad I was that he knew everything and I wouldn't ever. He laughed--he was pleased and flattered--and then he said that I was really very smart and that I'd know everything that he knew--and, hey, kid, it isn't everything--when I got to be as old as he was. "Even more," he added, waxing reflective. "Honey, you'll see things in the next century that I haven't dreamed of." So how come none of this made any difference? Leaving aside his implicit little boo-hoo about his being an old geezer on his way to the grave, he gave the correct answer to my kiddie complaint.

Is it that there are some curses that can't be lifted?--Not by common sense, not by love?

The only way to lift them is by another curse. Once, when I came home from college, I got in very late at night, and there he was waiting up, watching TV in his plaid bathrobe. Tired, gray-skinned, some white beard stubble. All alone in the house. He was watching National Velvet--I think he'd been crying. Dirty dishes in the sink.

All squared away, Dad? Everything shipshape?

He was as glad to see me as I'd ever been to see him when I was little. But his lighting up with pleasure didn't light me up.

He said, "Hey, babe, am I glad to see you." Then he said, "I didn't hear you come in."

I'd wondered before if he was a little deaf.

I said, "Where is everyone?"

He looked surprised, as if he couldn't think who I meant. "I don't know," he said. "Oh yeah. Nora's...in Washington, I guess."

I was his joy his sweetness his mercy and his hope. And I just hoped he wouldn't start a long conversation. Teddy Roosevelt is Dead, Dad.

I'd been loving a rival (it's not true that only sons compete with their fathers), and it was a long time before that victory, that disappointment, that distaste, and that miserable taunting glee released me. The first curse of being his awed pupil had been less painful. Under that curse we both supposed that I was getting somewhere as he recited to me his instruction manual to the world page by page, while I struggled not to resist, struggled to make my mind a worthy receptacle for his lore.

He wanted to make me more sure of myself and I became more anxious, to enlarge me and I felt dwarfed. So then I wanted him to be less outfitted and armed, to be--as we all used to say--more vulnerable. But when he was, I couldn't help saying to myself, "Boy, is that not what I had in mind."

That's the bitter side of that little saying that otherwise seems so sweet--the heart has its reasons that reason does not know. TR = D.

Continues...


Excerpted from The Half-Life of Happiness by John Casey Copyright © 1999 by John Casey. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Posted May 5, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    John Casey's The Half-life of Happiness is a cameo of our lives

    John Casey and Philip Roth are the two finest, living American novelists. Roth has engaged the conflicts of our era; Casey engages the intimacies. Someday, historians will look to Roth to find out what kept us apart from each other. Lovers of literature will look to Casey to discern what kept us together.
    The Half-life of Happiness is John Casey's third novel, following his debut novel, An American Romance, and his National Book Award-winner, Spartina. Each conveys a different story, an interesting story, but what you remember is having gotten into someone else's soul.
    Dick Pierce of Spartina is very blue-collar and very male, but a highly educated woman could readily identify with him.
    Mac and Anya of An American Romance are young, untried, and educated, but readers old enough to be their parents find themselves in either or both of them.
    Likewise, Mike Reardon of The Half-life of Happiness is older, wiser, accomplished--and hapless in the face of the collapse of all his emotional supports. A younger reader could see this coming, and marvel that Mike didn't. Mike is us.
    Author Casey enables what the MRI machine only pretends to offer: a look into a fellow human being's head. Don't believe in psychiatry, but do believe in fiction, especially if the novelist is John Casey. He's never hostile to his characters, but he's not charitable, either. He's the best friend of his characters, and so they open up to him. Casey shows us their discomfiture, and revels in their small joys. Casey knows that all joys are small, for we are small creatures, who couldn't wrap ourselves around something large like glory.
    There is an exhilarating intimacy to be experienced in The Half-life of Happiness: The husband gets blindsided by his wife who leaves him, and the reader feels affection for both husband and wife, and even for the husband's new girlfriend, their marriage counselor. This might seem contrived, but it isn't. There is a Congressional election campaign that is exquisitely funny, but it feels as if our inadequate selves were on the ballot. There is sex, there is romance, there are daughters, and they all feel right, neither exalted nor disparaged.
    The Half-life of Happiness is a cameo of our lives as the American century came to a close. It is exquisite, read it.
    But then go back and read Casey's Spartina, for this painstaking craftsman of fiction has, at long last, a fourth novel coming out this October. It's called Compass Rose, and it's about Dick Pierce's love child, so why not meet Dick Pierce if you haven't already? Go read Spartina.

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