Through The Keyhole

BOOK REVIEW by Martin Tucker

Though its style may at first seem dauntingly experimental, Leon Whiteson’s last novel is familiar enough territory for a reader who remembers there is nothing so strange as humankind and nothing so recognizable as ambition riddled with guilt and doubt.

Whiteson, who died at the time of the book’s appearance, is rendering a man’s life story as he defiantly reconstructs it while it is being deconstructed by his descent into Alzheimer’s Disease. Though he is wasting away in flesh and in his ability to communicate to others, he is capable of furiously recalling to himself his life story. He is searching for meaning in it, if not the meaning of it. Sometimes he is Lear ranting on a garbage heap, sometimes he paints a portrait of himself as a young man on the road to becoming an artist. Sometimes he recalls the wonders of his love for his wife, a love that runs from corners of bliss to columns of bile and anger. In one harrowing scene he recalls his return visit to Bulawayo (then in a land called Rhodesia), to face the mother he deserted when as a young man he skipped out secretly to a new life on American shores. Sometimes he recalls with anguish his quarrels with his two children, the spoiled son who becomes a born-again Jew and thus alien to his awe-less father, and the daughter who will descend into her prison of mis-memory. She will tell him, to convince her father she is sane, that “Last night I talked to Shakespeare. He told me that your immortality depends on how much you love me.”

Whiteson’s novel is clothed with the hangings of dirty wash, familiar wash, and coats of many colors. It is rooted—and routed—in specific places and a particular century. This is a Jewish story on one level—a family who flees the pogroms and banishments of participation in an alien culture; they leave cold Russia, hoping to find a new life in America. Like Columbus, they land in a mistaken port. As Columbus did not find India and its jewels, Billy Dekeyser’s father takes the wrong boat and lands in South Africa. He hikes his family 1,500 miles from Capetown to then-Rhodesia, where he eternally earns a low salary and indulges in low self-esteem. Leah, the mother, will become the domineering parent who takes her only son into her heart and tries to keep him forever nearby. Or so the young Billy fears. To thwart her dream and find his own reality, he ships out one night on a boat and a journey that will land him in Los Angeles/Hollywood for most of his life. He is determined to escape from his resolutely under-ambitious father and his passionately enveloping mother.

The first part of Whiteson’s story is Jewish in its trappings, but it is non-ethnic as well. Timid men and disappointed hardened mothers come in all faiths, and no one passport gives identity to the stamp of the custom of loss.

The rest of Billy’s story is temporarily faith-less. Billy—or Willard Dekeyser—is dying of Alzheimer’s (or AD, as he constantly refers to it). His words cannot be pronounced, his breath cannot utter a wind of thought. Billy’s anger turns to fury as he flays himself with his impotence; it is his last great bellowing. His thundering rantings, as drawn by Whiteson, are horrendous, magnificent in their volume, irresistible in their force to command attention by the reader, but there is a problem with impressive ranting. Though Whiteson cunningly constructs his passages of punning and word play, and ingenious association of ideas and phrases of different centuries and languages, the accumulation is overwhelmingly distracting. The force of the volume becomes so great that one cannot hear any sentence, and certainly not linger on a meaning, before another avalanche of charges, and charged linguistic dueling, is upon him. Still, the power of the prose imposed on him by the rantings is triumphant—one cannot escape it even as one may wish to flee from it.

At one point early in the novel, Billy seizes on a dictum of Kant that perception without conception is “blind.” His novel is a commitment to a selectivity of concepts that will enable him to perceive what is happening within or “through the keyhole.” Perhaps “keyhold” may be a better metaphor, since Billy, and his creator Whiteson, is seeking a holding of meaning, not the tunnel from which he will have to extract the finding. The metaphor is apt, however, in either spelling, in that Billy is seeking to find an answer—or meaning—to the questions inherent in his journey of life. Given this premise, or concept, Whiteson structures his novel in a familiar mode. The stages of James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist As a Young Man are evident in Whiteson’s allusive borrowings, as are references to nineteenth- and twentieth-century bildungromans. The “keyhole” is a double lens—one wants to see through it but—remembering Kant—one cannot produce meaning without some prior sense or borrowing from a conceptual/pre-ordained (religious or secular) instruction sheet. Thus Whiteson’s “ordering” cannot let Billy off the hook of Judaism and its haunting ordinances, its Old Testament chords. Billy’s beginning and end can/must be located in the same place—the keyhole is deceptive because the journey is not linear, or one step at a time, but circular and billowing/contracting. This much certainty is at least apparent to Billy in his final moments, as Whiteson writes on the last page: “The Listener and the one who listens are one. She-Ma!”

What other lessons to be learned from Billy’s story are more elusive. Ravaged by Alzheimer’s , Billy erupts into a narrative not entirely dependable on guilt by association of ideas and people, or on remorseful lamentations and adulterated apologies for opportunism at high cost. Yet Whiteson’s writing has the power to shackle the reader’s attention, and one comes away from the novel shaken in the best sense of spirit. This is a novel which has the force to taunt a reader who might prefer to forget life’s grievous contradictions. It is a novel to make all dying men come alive to the statement Whiteson quotes from Chekhov—“It’s frightening to become nothing”-- and then Billy/Whiteson’s own question, “Should I order a last glass of champagne?”