Last week I saw The Dresser with Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith.
Reece Shearsmith in particular gave a really moving performance. The cast were universally good and it was an interesting exploration of love in various guises amongst a group of people who are no longer young. For this reason, I thought I’d look at novels exploring love later in life.
Firstly, Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (2013), which is a simple novel in some ways, the coming-out tale of 74 year-old Barrington Jedidiah Walker, and I loved it. Firstly there is the cover, which absolutely captures how I saw the main character:
“Still spruced up and sharp-suited with rather manly swagger. Still six foot something with no sign of shrinkage yet. Still working a certain je ne sais whatsit. I might have lost the hair on my head, but I still got a finely clipped moustache in the style of old Hollywood romancers. Folk used to tell me I looked like a young Sidney Poitier. Now they say I resemble a (slightly older) Denzel Washington. Who am I to argue? The facts is the facts. Some of us have it, some of us do not. Bring it on, Barry. Bring it on…”
Then there is the character of Barry himself: intelligent, witty, kind, selfish, self-centred, sexist. A mass of compelling and endearing contradictions. A sexist who uses the word “mentalate” rather than menstruate, yet who supports a lesbian he barely knows through a degree in Woman’s Studies. A flamboyant, confident, outgoing man who cannot come out through fear of judgement; unapologetic of his sexuality yet resistant to certain labels “I ain’t no homosexual, I am a ….Barrysexual!”, despite the love he feels for his partner of 60 years, Morris.
“He is my Morris and he always been my Morris. He’s a good-hearted man, a special man, a sexy man, a history-loving-man, a loyal man, a man who appreciates a good joke, a man of many moods, a drinking man and a man with whom I can be myself, completely.”
Barry has been married to Carmel for the majority of their lives, a woman with whom he has little in common:
“Carmel still don’t get arty-fartiness, and the only culture that interests her is the one she decimates with bleach.”
Yet Evaristo shows Carmel’s side of the story brilliantly, and cruelty of Barry’s lies and deception. The impact on Carmel, though she remains oblivious and thinks him a womaniser, is considerable and destructive. While we root for Barry, we are also aware of his disregard for other’s feelings, including his two daughters, especially the eldest with whom he has a strained relationship. And yet just at the points where I would be close to losing all sympathy for Barry, Evaristo would remind me of all he had to contend with:
“All of my life I’ve watched couples holding hands, kissing in the street, on the bus, in pubs. I’ve watched couples walking arm in arm, ruffling each other’s hair, sitting on each other’s laps, dancing closely…
And never, not once, have I ever felt able even to link arms with the man I love.
Me and Morris exchange sidelong glances, and flicker.
He grabs my hand and squeezes it for a few seconds.
It is our first public display of physical affection in sixty years.”
Mr Loverman is also a story of identity, colonialism, immigration first and second-generation, and prejudice in many forms.
“And so what if me and my people choose to mash up the h-english linguish whenever we feel like it, drop prepositions with our panties, piss in the pot of correct syntax and spelling, mangle our grammar at random? Is this not our post-modern, post-colonial prerogative?”
Barry is an intelligent, well-educated ( devoted to his various night school classes), well-read and funny guide through these issues, who provides plenty of food for thought whilst suggesting love always wins out, and there’s plenty to go round. A brilliant character study which engages with huge themes in a compelling but never didactic way, Mr Loverman, like Barry himself, is an absolute gem.
Now would be an opportunity for the song from which the novel takes its title, but I am less forgiving than Barry regarding Mr Shabba Ranks’ homophobia. So instead here is a pop video interested in addressing the issue:
Secondly, Our Souls at Night, the last novel by Kent Haruf (2015). Unlike Barry and Morris, Addie and Louis become lovers later in life, although they have known each other for years. The novel begins with Addie visiting Louis to make a proposition: that he visit her at night so they sleep together. It is not a request for sex, but for companionship, conversation, and comfort. They live in small town and know from the outset that their arrangement will not go unnoticed:
“It’s some kind of decision to be free. Even at our ages.
You’re acting like a teenager.
I never acted like this as a teenager. I never dared anything. I did what I was supposed to.”
The short novel (179 pages in my edition) follows the tender, tentative relationship that builds between Louis and Addie. Haruf’s writing is sparse and he hammers nothing home. Instead he presents moments in unadorned prose, leaving the reader to recognise the meaning.
“Addie turned off the light. Where’s your hand?
Right here beside you where it always is.”
The moments layer into a narrative which presents a touching, believable relationship between two strong, independent individuals who also recognise their need for intimate human contact. Haruf is interested in what human beings can give to each other in the simplest, most fundamental terms. This is further explored through their relationship with Addie’s grandson, a boy traumatised by his parents acrimonious split, who is healed through humble activities with Louis (ball games, camping) and adopting a rescue dog.
“The boy was asleep. The dog lifted her head from the pillow, looked up at Louis and lay back again.
In Addie’s bedroom Louis put his hand out the window and caught the rain dripping off the eaves and came to bed and touched his wet hand on Addie’s soft cheek.”
Haruf is a wonderful writer, presenting moments of extraordinary delicacy and complexity distilled to their essence. Beautiful.
To end, a Ruth Gordon gallery (I don’t know why I don’t do this every week). Because her face is amazing, and one of her most famous roles was in Harold and Maude, a controversial older person romance. In real life she was married to the same person for 43 years and he was with her when she died. Also, completely unconnected to theme but just because I think it’s awesome, when she died aged 88 she was planning the next play she was going to write.