SOON: TALES FROM HOSPICE.
Dying in an Amarillo hospice, a proud agnostic insists on being lucid to the end. Mr. Straughn, which is what the volunteer who tells his story always calls him, even savors his imminent demise. He sees it as a precious opportunity to experiment in communicating across dimensions: “He wanted to record how it feels to die, what it meant to enter what he called the end zone, so that his wife and daughter, and we – all of us – would be better prepared for it. He had no tolerance for fantasy or ‘pious piffle.’ He expected us to stay tuned, to pay full attention.” Soon commands full attention from readers who can never be sufficiently prepared for termination.
A. G. Mojtabai sets her collection of stories in a hospice very much like the one adjoining St. Anthony’s Hospital in Amarillo, where she spent several months as a volunteer and a literary spy. In the preface, Moj-tabai explains that the short fictions in her eighth book originated in speculation about the lives she watched depart. The volume’s title story derives from her fascination with the image of a woman combing her mother’s hair. “Last Things” was inspired by the sight of a woman propped up in bed racing to write what Mojtabai supposes were valedictory letters. “Nola” is an inventive attempt to explain why an orchid was pinned to the pillow of another patient.
Mustering what she calls “the courage to presume,” the author might seem merely presumptuous, a shameless plagiarist who plunders ailing acquaintances for the raw materials of her trade. But fiction is always an exercise in creative extrapolation. And, rejecting pious piffle, Mojtabai pays her expiring subjects the ultimate respect of observation and imagination. Like Mr. Straughn, she offers an experiment in announcing the final series of downs before the end zone.
Death in Venice has of course a distinguished literary pedigree (think not only of Thomas Mann’s novella, but also of where Robert Browning expired and Ezra Pound was buried), but death in Amarillo is as unacclaimed as life. “Houston, Dallas, even Austin, were charted, on the map of the land of the living – but Amarillo?” asks Michael, a gay man who quit West Texas for California yet returns home to die of AIDS. Cliff, who left his farmer father’s windswept land to run an advertising agency in Dallas, was taught by a twister at the age of eight “not to count on anything lasting, in this part of the inhabited world.” The Amarillo hospice in Soon is a very temporary habitation. Sooner rather than later, each of Mojtabai’s in-patients checks out.
The author herself has lasted in the Texas Panhandle more than sixteen years, since arriving on a Greyhound bus from her native New York City. Piqued by reports about the Roman Catholic bishop’s opposition to the local Pantex plant, which assembles nuclear weapons, Mojtabai (a Brooklyn Jew who acquired her Iranian surname from her former husband) came to write an article but stayed to create a book. Blessed Assurance: At Home with the Bomb in Amarillo (1986) was widely admired for its empathy with the Christian fundamentalists for whom the Pantex operation is a confirmation of apocalyptic convictions. The prospect of nuclear devastation encourages end-time thinking, and so, too, perhaps, does metropolitan Amarillo, where ten classic Cadillacs are half-buried in the ground at Stanley Marsh’s Cadillac Ranch. Mojtabai spends part of her year teaching at the University of Tulsa, but Amarillo, a mundane place save for offering the world’s highest concentration of helium, has become her unlikely base of operations.
The hospice setting provides a unifying device for the seventeen short stories that constitute Soon. Though mortality prevents many characters from reappearing from one story to the next, we do maintain continuing acquaintance with Cora Miller, whose husband Kenneth died in the hospice several years ago and who now serves as a volunteer among the terminally ill. After seventeen years of marriage, Louellen White, a licensed vocational nurse, is abandoned by her husband – “Hoping to forget her own hurt, she’d come to work at hospice, and here she was, plunged to her elbows, awash in sorrow.” For Olive Masters, the hospice housekeeper, the work is a refuge from seven children and a retired husband, and she performs her chores of turning over patients and emptying pans almost sacramentally. The hospice chaplain is Father Martin, an energetic man who replaces and snubs Father Arkady, who served as the institution’s first chaplain and is now dying in one of its beds.
As Samuel Johnson noted, the prospect of extinction concentrates the mind, but the concentration on final breaths in story after story can be numbing. Mojtabai’s observations are pert and precise, the product of a stranger’s careful attention to local lore and diction. She notes that early settlers in this treeless region drove corkscrewed stakes into the soil as posts to tether horses. And she listens to the native speech: “That child thinks she’s hung the moon,” says a mother about her spoiled daughter, while waiting for her grandfather to expire. Yet for all the exquisite patience of Mojtabai’s limpid prose, in standing death watch again and again, its cumulative effect can deaden. I think of another Johnson quip: “It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives.”
The most compelling parts of Soon affirm the urge for life. The final story in the volume, “Wedding,” blends negation and affirmation, as a bride and groom exchange vows in the hospice, a few steps away from the woman’s expiring grandmother. Elsewhere, when Bill Blakely, a rambunctious old cowboy, hobbles out of the hospice on his one remaining leg in order to go “Honky-tonking – all night long,” even the nurses he has exasperated respect the man’s perverse vivacity. We root for queer old Nola when, instead of acquiescing to a ritual gone gloomy, she grabs the Communion wafer from her tongue and flips it into the air, murmuring her explication: “Not enough joy.”
The Death of Ivan Ilych is a daunting model for Mojtabai’s project, to illuminate existence by confronting its cessation. Like Tolstoy’s novella, the most vivid of her stories use a character’s final moments to measure what is being irretrievably lost. In “Greyhound,” Paul, a thirty-year-old vagabond, lies in his hospice bed stricken with cancer, but the focus of the story is his recollection of a brief encounter with Amber, a stranger barely half his age, during a long overnight bus journey through Missouri. In Paul’s redemptive remembrance of “how tenderly he’d held her all night through, loving for no reason, loving without taking, that such things are possible and do happen, however rarely, they do,” Mojtabai’s valediction is a benediction.
In “The Juniper Tree,” Cora finds herself watching over Marian, a precocious and emaciated eight-year-old, while the youngster’s mother attends to business outside the hospice. Given strict instructions not to distress the child with any allusions to her condition, Cora decides to read to her as a diversion from her dismal situation. Choosing a collection of fairy tales, she begins reading “The Juniper Tree,” before discovering, too late, that it is a gruesome yarn about an evil stepmother who beheads a little boy, then cooks him and serves him to his father for dinner. Instead of soothing the luckless little girl, Cora has inadvertently provided her with a graphic reminder of human misery. However, the hospice worker resolves to continue reading, since halting in the middle would only compound the horror; besides, if the story ended happily the effect might overcome the earlier shocks.
But Marian falls asleep before Cora can complete the story, and it is Cora who is upset: “I have to admit I was terribly disappointed,” she reports. “I wanted to see the story through with Marian, to bring her through terrible evils to a righting of wrongs and a resolution. I wanted her to see it all spelled out, every detail accounted for. It was something I needed to do – I’m not sure it would have made a great deal of difference to Marian herself – she hadn’t seemed in the least troubled by the goriest parts of the tale.”
It is tempting to read Mojtabai’s “The Juniper Tree” as a parable about narrative art and a justification for the entire collection in which it appears. The stories in Soon are products of a writer’s need to see things through, even – especially – when those things are dreadful. We encounter Mojtabai’s characters – like Betty Loomis, the comatose woman in “I’m Still Here” – “straddling two worlds.” It is not they who need to be read to. It is those of us still eyeing the end zone from afar who feel compelled to read our condition clearly, before the page grows dark.
Steven G. Kellman is Ashbel Smith Professor of Comparative Literature at U.T.—San Antonio and a member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. His most recent book, as co-editor, is Into The Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel.
This article is partially funded through a grant from the Austin Writers’ League in cooperation with The Texas Commission on the Arts.