I Thought You Were Dead: A Love Story
Pete Nelson (2010, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)
It’s 1998. Paul Gustavson is a divorced writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts, quietly drinking his life away. His girlfriend, who lives a couple of hours away in Rhode Island, is deciding between him and another man; his devoted dog, Stella, is fifteen years old and failing; and his father, back in Minnesota, has just had a major stroke.
Pete Nelson’s I Thought You Were Dead is about what all this pushes Paul to do. Spurred to thoughts of mortality, he cuts back on doughnuts and takes up jogging. He tries yoga: “He liked the mindful breathing part. The poses hurt like hell, but that seemed to be the idea, learning how to get bent out of shape without getting bent out of shape.”
Because he can’t visit the way his brother and sister can, he takes long-distance care of his father by chatting over the computer; this dates the story, in an agreeable way, because people are still figuring out how to do it. It’s also an effective way of making Paul talk about himself, because his father is not up to much in the way of responses beyond YES and NO.
He takes care of Stella when it thunders, and carries her into the house when her back legs start failing. Stella has, as it happens a gift for conversation and a fundamentally sweet soul. She’s a little dumb about some things, hence the novel’s title–she lives in the moment. But she observes Paul acutely; she tells him the truth; and she makes the call about when it’s time for him to end her suffering.
She’s stoic about it, but Paul’s a mess. “He withdrew, holed up with a bottle of vodka to slow his thoughts. He wasn’t sure when he would be ready to resume his responsibilities in the universe.” He still loves Tamsen, his girlfriend, but he breaks up with her out of depressive inertia.
At last, he puts down the bottle. “He’d expected to have some sort of unbearable craving for a drink, but he didn’t feel any thirstier than usual, and indeed he felt measurably better, more clearheaded. He slept better, and his skull didn’t hurt when he woke up in the morning.” Another visit to Minnesota rearranges his family constellation for Paul, opening lines of communication that had long atrophied.
I Thought You Were Dead is a very fine book about people being able to hear each other. I appreciated the way it maintained a comic view of some complicated lives. The electronic chatting is an interesting touch; I think Nelson gets its strengths and drawbacks right. I also enjoyed the epigraphs, excerpts from the book Paul is working on, Nature for Morons. I’m always up for tidbits about evolution and psychology, anyhow, but of course, these are meant as commentary on Paul’s discoveries, things he learns as research before he knows them as life.
It’s a long time till Spring--treat yourself to a novel.
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