Louie Hake is forty-three and teaches architectural history at a third-rate college in Michigan. His second marriage is collapsing, and he's facing a potentially disastrous medical diagnosis. In an attempt to fend off what has become a soul-crushing existential crisis, he decides to treat himself to a tour of the world's most breathtaking architectural sites. Perhaps not surprisingly, Louie gets waylaid on his very first stop in Rome--ludicrously, spectacularly so--and fails to reach most of his other destinations. He embarks on a doomed romance with a jilted bride celebrating her ruined marriage plans alone in London. And in the Arctic he finds that turf houses and aluminum sheds don't amount to much of an architectural tradition. But it turns out that there's another sort of architecture there: icebergs the size of cathedrals, bobbing beside a strange and wondrous landscape. It soon becomes clear that Louie's grand journey is less about where his wanderings have taken him and more about where his past encounters with romance have not. Whether pursuing his first wife, or his estranged current wife, or the older woman he kissed just once a quarter-century ago, Louie reveals himself to be endearing, deeply touching, wonderfully ridiculous . . . and destined to find love in all the wrong places.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.40(d)|
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Part One: Rome
The first of your dreams discovers
a Mediterranean rose,
beckoning you toward its center
as the warm petals close . . .
If at last they are to come down to us—the Extraterrestrials—what better time than dusk, what better place than the American Midwest? It’s midsummer and a small boy sits beside his father on their sagging back porch. The boy’s name is Louie Hake and the father’s name is Louie Hake as well, and so prickling-potent is the boy’s sensation of kinship while the two of them hunch in the neighborhood twilight, it’s like some internal scent lodged within the very bones of his head. Both wear khaki shorts. Both have blue-gray eyes.
Though the boy has some trouble pronouncing both r’s and s’s, he delights in childish wordplay, savoring in these quiet, seated moments a sweet male sensation of the two of them drinking a beer. The father’s beer is a brown bottle of Stroh’s, while the boy’s beer is of course root beer, sipped from a Dixie cup.
The boy can hardly keep his eyes off the cup, which may be the oddest color he knows: a goofy, dancing, go-for-broke green greener than Nature herself. It’s a color that conspires with the day’s quivery orange dusk-light, converting the fizzing brown liquid into a miniature ebony pool. And when little Louie lifts to his lips the cup’s waxy rim, here’s another oddity: the drink plays him a sort of trick, an invisible prank. Again and again its leaping bubbles bring him to the intoxicating threshold of a sneeze.
The root beer is a special treat. For Louie the phrase is both fathomless riddle and ceaseless obsession. The words confine him and they occasionally, capriciously liberate him; the phrase holds in its jurisdiction some of the sharpest pleasures his body knows. Chocolate, butterscotch, licorice—all forbidden, except as special treats. Likewise the ebullient root beer exploding in his hand. Not normally permitted. Louie’s stepmother believes that just as chocolate impairs digestion, butterscotch induces headaches, and licorice interferes with sleep, too much soda pop stunts a boy’s growth.
Louie is the shortest pupil—boy or girl—in Miss Davis’s fourth-grade class at Hiawatha Elementary, three blocks from this bowed back porch. Vaguely, guiltily, he senses how his relative littleness distresses his parents, while not perceiving that something in his lisping and his sleight-of-hand quickness—a touch of the elfin in his sly-eyed glances—inspires an unease neither father nor stepmother will put into words. Of course the parents have no means of knowing that although Louie as an adult will face formidable physical problems, his stature won’t be one. (Nor will he be effeminate.) Worries will dissolve, new worries materialize . . . In junior high school, while distracted by powerful waves of acne-spattering hormones, Louie will suddenly spring up to five feet eight inches—just an inch or so below average height for a male of his generation.
Mrs. Hake, who at five-nine will always have an overseeing inch’s advantage on her stepson, believes that her husband stunted his growth with cigarettes, taken up on the gray, rakehell streets of Detroit at the age of twelve. She’s a woman of firm views.
Mr. Hake no longer smokes, and little Louie has but one clear recollection of his father’s cigarettes. This was at a family picnic at Detroit’s Belle Isle. There, too, Louie had been sitting beside his father, and again both were wearing shorts. Reaching for a deviled egg with one hand, Mr. Hake allowed his cigarette-bearing other hand to graze his son’s bare leg, just above the knee.
What immediately followed was a detonation: pain, indignation, shock. Really, there was nothing for little Louie to liken it to. Inside his head the moment went rocketing upward, upward, as if into the open rings of outer space, there to circle and circle, becoming one of those named satellites you live your life beneath: The Day Daddy Burned My Leg.
Well, the little boy at the picnic—the burned and mistreated boy—wept and continued weeping, long after the pain subsided. He wept until he himself had to wonder why he didn’t stop . . . When, occasionally, the child on the back porch recalls that other, earlier, smaller child, a slinking shame physically overtakes him: for he’s big enough now to identify the internal kernel of malice in his infantile refusal to accept his father’s horrified apologies. (The penitent man soon gave up smoking altogether.) This was another troubling riddle for young Louie: Apparently, even in the midst of righteous tears a person could be cruel. Yes, the wronged person, the hopeless victim, could nonetheless be cruel . . .
Is any emotion more tenacious than shame? It brushes Louie as he sits beside his father on the back porch, and it infects him even when—worlds away, decades away, decades later, supine in a hotel room in Rome—he recollects that distant picnic, now so remote its diluted sunlight flickers, as in an old movie . . . While, from below, the foreign noises of Italian traffic carom and scuffle round the hotel room, and while, from above, an ad hoc flock of seagulls cries heartbrokenly for a missing sea, Louie Hake regrets those ancient tears, and it scarcely matters that his father has been dead for eight years. Or perhaps his father’s being dead and unreachable only intensifies the little boy’s crime. Lost in the howling vortex of those tears, he’d refused to comfort the kindest man ever to greet the dawn.
It seems there are different Louies . . . Louie-the-boy, who believes in Extraterrestrials, sits on the back porch beside his father, and Louie-the-man, forty-three years old, who believes in journeys of redemption, lies in a towering overpriced hotel room in an unfashionable part of Rome, sleepless, thrashing through tides of futility and remorse. The two moments are parentheses, loosely enclosing nothing less than the sprawling conundrum of a life.
Or—or call it the two wings of a triptych, whose central panel has gone missing. After all, the fine arts are his vocation, his calling. And art by essence is an untrustworthy enterprise, the dozing adult Louie (professor Louie) senses, especially for someone of his own mysteriously blocked creativity. (Surely he’s more imaginative than the hard evidence of his past suggests.) Still, if art’s no solace and sanctuary, where is he to go? Where is his soul to go? Where on earth is the shore to welcome him? He’s dozing . . . Something in Louie wants Louie to sleep, so it can fully awaken. Where is his soul to go? Not religion—with all its strained, unreasoning demands. And not romantic love—for Louie knows by bitterest experience that love’s a refuge more treacherous even than art.
On a warm summer day, in an orange dusk, son and father hunker on the back stoop, sipping drinks only slightly cooler than the flushed and vibrant air. Behind their narrow backs—both Louies are slender—lies a welcoming vacancy. An empty house. The boy’s stepmother and his big sister, Annabelle, who share a heavy tread, have marched off to the drugstore. The boy’s stepmother, in particular, is an outsize and purposeful presence; even when he’s upstairs, and she’s downstairs, her physical existence overtops his. She is imposing—she imposes herself. Though charitable enough toward living souls (she has never laid a finger on either stepchild, and Louie has seen backyard squirrels inch forward to filch a peanut from her tranquil palm), she is an exacting disciplinarian of the inorganic world. It’s positively scary to see such righteous fury unleashed upon household appliances. Louie’s father, grinning a half grin, calls these moments The Mother’s Encounters with Objects. He makes a joke of it, but it can be truly scary, the house shuddering to her booming admonitions. Toasters, can openers, balky vacuum cleaner attachments, leaking faucets, fitful garbage disposals, fainting dehumidifiers, clattering electric fans—all cower and quail and sweat beneath The Mother’s threats and coercions: “What do you imagine you’re doing?,” or “That’s quite enough from you,” or “Do you understand you are testing my patience . . . ” Or, most memorable of all, The Mother holding in one hand a new Christmas gift, a big fancy skull-sized alarm clock whose confusing dials weren’t readily cooperating, and the woman crying at it, or to it, Are you deaf? Are you deaf? Are you deaf?
In truth, there’s also profound reassurance in The Mother’s banging, rattling presence, and on the sole occasion of her extended absence—a week away in Phoenix, caring for her baby brother, Uncle Jimmy, after he nearly died of a perforated appendix—a hapless and eerie silence infiltrated the Hake household. Life turned bewilderingly arbitrary. No compelling reason existed, without The Mother’s monitoring eye, to comb your hair, or not to comb your hair. No reason to go to bed, no reason not to . . . Still, there was comfort—a sort of salmon-glow comfort, much like the tincturing of the sky as the two Louies survey the earth from the companionable vantage of the back porch—in these interludes when the house exhales a calm and clement emptiness.
The linking of color to feeling or mood or sound comes readily to Louie. Nearly a quarter century from now, when he has just turned thirty-three, a battery of tests and interviews will reveal—the main point—that he’s bipolar. But he will also informally learn what he has always known unthinkingly: his particular cerebral cortex traffics in synesthesia. For him, the integers have complementary colors, at least up to nine. (Why do others not see that two is sky blue, three is Kelly green, four a purplish brown, the subtlest of the number colors? Or seven a pumpkin-y orange, eight a bruised red, nine a glossy black? Are most people colorblind?)
Louie will eventually wonder whether his father, too, viewed the world synesthetically. It would explain a great deal. The man spent the whole of his working life at Universal Colorfast, which specialized in automotive paint.
It was a job whose nobleness Louie Senior never questioned. Armed with the colors of progress, he was helping to tint the American landscape wherever her rapidly expanding highway system extended. Cars more than any other feat of engineering were the future—a touchable, polishable future. An annual ritual arose with the new models: Father would usher son into the swank, intimidating, gleaming, redolent dealer showrooms, an atmosphere so potent it locked up little Louie’s tongue. Models kept changing, his father explained, some years looked more stylish, but each passing year meant improved paint: a future of finer, deeper, truer colors.
In fact, his father explained it to anybody who would listen: the fascinating thing about automotive paint is just how many ways it can go wrong. It bubbles, it blisters. It clouds and fades, cracks, scratches, chips, flakes. Your house stands still, it makes its peace with the plot it stands upon, but your car is always hurtling from one hostile terrain to the next. Your home has a home; your car has no home. It’s attacked from without by pebbles and hailstorms, pounding sun and pounding rain, abrasive salts, flying grit. Sticky waves of pollen. Acidic bird droppings. Corrosive pollution, smoke. And it’s attacked from within by rust and damp and leaching chemicals, ground-frost, overheating engines . . .
Unlike most men, Louie Senior has a precise vision of the grail of his profession: perfect paint. After centuries of painstaking experimentation, after tireless trial and error, after endless mess and clinging clouds of stink and ever-mounting expense, somehow the first incomparable batch, a triumphal marriage of fixative and luster, would materialize: perfect paint.
It needn’t last forever. No, perfect paint would have to endure, crisp and unmarred, only for an automobile’s working life. And this was no jeweled mirage. This was a reachable goal. Here was a luminous vision of American junkyards whose exhausted vehicles—radiators exploded, engines fried, tires frayed, gaskets blown—sparkled like some virgin chassis borne on the slow firm tide of the assembly line.
Not surprisingly, the front of the Hake house shows to the world a glistening surface; Mr. Hake repaints every third summer. And perhaps also not surprisingly, the gray back porch wears a dull and shabby coat. A man needs a place to relax. This porch is a harbor where, clad in white T-shirts, a father might sit with his nine-year-old son at day’s end, taking stock, content to have nothing occur—while unknowingly awaiting an Extraterrestrial’s arrival.
A young boy sits alongside his father on a back porch in the Detroit suburb of Fallen Hills, Michigan, and the same boy, some thirty-four years later, lies sprawled at dusk in the Eternal City. He has just this morning arrived in Rome. The phrase’s ringing portentousness—Eternal City—inveigles Louie; it sings of the ranging grandeur of his pilgrimage. This is Step One on a tour of some of the world’s most magnificent architecture. It’s the trip of his life, or even—for Louie embraces an idiom of elevation—The Journey of His Life. In a sense he’s become his own assistant, assigning himself tasks that he performs respectfully and scrupulously. Take a mental snapshot of this. Absolutely. Give it a caption. You got it. Time to move on. Right you are.
Louie has left behind a stupefying junkyard of wreckage, including a romantic life so laughably painful it will not bear inspection. Well, he won’t inspect it. Instead, he will file in his brain, as in a series of notebooks, images of the earth’s most sublime buildings. This very day, in all his jet-lagged bedraggledness, didn’t he trundle himself off, aching back and all, to stand within the open enclosure of the Pantheon? Didn’t he coin a phrase—”the most beautiful hemisphere in the Eastern Hemisphere”—which felt snappy and fun and auspicious? Louie has sometimes seen the Pantheon described, by critics with sizable reputations, as the world’s most beautiful building, and perhaps the critics have it right. Or not. He’ll decide for himself. By the end of this trip, he’ll be able to compare it to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and to the Taj Mahal in Agra, and to Ginkakuji Temple in Kyoto. Such is his life’s Journey.
Though Louie is a teacher—long-term, life-term—it has been ages since he felt extended pedagogical excitement. But he’s feeling it now. Just a week or two ago, he emailed his department chair, crazy Leo Mattoon, proposing a new course for the spring semester: Four Masterpieces of World Architecture. The Pantheon, the Blue Mosque, the Taj Mahal, Ginkakuji Temple in Kyoto . . . He has now inspected one of the four, and he has found it good.
And unexpectedly, having launched himself on this odyssey, Louie is conducted into an adjacency of spirit with the nine-year-old boy who has dropped his skinny bottom on the top step of the back porch, the daydreamer who waits without knowing he’s waiting—who is about to witness the most astounding sight of his life. Whether the adult Louie is today in Italy, wandering the ruins of Rome, or in the next few weeks is raptly investigating buildings in Turkey or India or Japan, what could possibly equal this humble backyard moment?
From a fading blue sky a creature descends and alights upon young Louie’s knee—near the very spot where, five years before, his father’s cigarette bit a nerve. All is forgiven. All is surpassed. The creature is essentially weightless. (There’s only the faintest itchy kiss where its twitchy sentient ebony legs find purchase on Louie’s skinny white leg.)
To call it an insect would be scientifically accurate but spiritually misleading. Species, genus, family, order—such distinctions no longer obtain. Oh, Louie has stared before, with burning boyish near-eyed intensity, at any number of bugs: at grasshoppers, with their plated, shoved-in, thuggish faces; at preying mantises, with their cutesy heart-shaped heads and elegantly elongated assassin’s hands; at whiskery caterpillars whose miniature visages laughably reveal the drooping jowly humorlessness of walruses; at beetles so black no hole on earth could match their darkness. But nothing has adequately prepared him for the oddity and the exorbitance and the alien aristocratic ingenuity of the butterfly posed upon his knee. The thing is huge, and the duplicated, mirroring mosaics of its jeweled wings are an animate astonishment.
Father and son, who bear a close resemblance anyway, become twins. Interchangeably, with wet left-leaning slack mouths, they gape. The creature shivers its emerald and lavender and ivory wings. Clearly, it is no native of Michigan’s dun tamed marshes and meadows and forests. This is a refugee from another planet.
In just a few moments, shortly after the otherworldly wings shimmer off into thin air and the light of day weakly regathers, Louie’s father will group his wits and explain that the creature must be some sort of escapee: a runaway—a flyaway—from a zoo, or a laboratory, or a specialist’s collection. And Louie will nod, gratefully. But such explanations are gray as the town sidewalks, dry as the backyard’s wiry circles of brown grass where Ordie, the family dog, leaves his digestive diary.
For a few incandescent moments, Louie witnesses a variant reality. Some one hundred and twenty-seven million photoreceptors line the average human eye—an eighth of a billion entryways—and for Louie it’s as though each has been potentiated. No other word can summon and reflect what the boy has glimpsed: perfection.
How much did he understand back then? To the fatigued man in Rome, whose back is throbbing after a cramped transatlantic flight, it seems the moment’s ongoing significance has been grasped only recently.
At the close of day most creatures must rest, and let’s suppose the strangest, bravest of them all selects your naked leg for a way-station—are you prepared? Are you really? How could the little boy understand that here was a moment he must spend the remainder of his days looking to replicate? The Journey of His Life is the bare, hopeful pursuit of an encore. One midsummer dusk, you behold a winged immortal, a god or goddess unsheathed, and naturally you must veer off in headlong pursuit, down Time’s long maze of mirroring corridors. (And Time is your enemy. Time will darken your life’s every image. At the close of day, at the close of day . . . ) It was some eleven weeks ago, on March 27, 2014, that Louie Hake was officially diagnosed with AOFVD, adult-onset foveomacular vitelliform dystrophy, a disease with no known cure.
Even before the diagnosis, the situation was dire: it was no easy task being Louie Hake, with a career going nowhere, and a second marriage avalanching toward divorce, a forty-three-year-old man apologetically childless and bipolar and inadequately bankrolled. Anyone looking at him might have supposed that the bullying gods above, having already dealt such severe blows, in fairness now would grant him a reprieve. Wrong. Here is another pitfall in his path, and this one is dank and black as the grave: evidently, he may be going blind.