In the Visitor’s Room of a prison in Oxford, at the table next to me, a middle-aged man in a turquoise shirt sips a cocktail through a straw; his face scrunches up with pleasure. The woman he is with leans in to whisper in his ear. He opens his eyes and catches me looking at him and I look down at the menu I’m holding. Three courses on Christmas Day will be £85.
This building was used to incarcerate and sometimes execute people until it was sold by the council in 1996 for £9,000 to Malmaison, a hotel chain. Today it is worth around £30 million.
For the last 10 years the Visitor’s Room has been a bar area where couples like the one next to me come to enjoy themselves. I look across again and they are kissing. She strokes his belly with the backs of her fingers.
For all that the highway divides local opinion, to drive it is mesmerising. Far from an arrow-straight highway, it loops and bends, hugging the north’s frozen ponds, the so-called Eskimo Lakes, a system of brackish estuarine basins. At the roadside, the Richardson Mountains and boreal forest fade until they disappear completely, leaving the windshield crowded with nothing but a panorama of bald ice. And there are so many shades of white, the sky takes on a pale-coloured glow.
“You haven’t seen the Arctic unless you come in winter,” said Taylor as we passed a huge plateau of ice. Up close, wind-blown snow rushed the road, moving gravel like an illusion. “We’re at the edge of the tree line here – this is the limit of where it’s comfortable to live.”
The essay reflects with particular potency what might be gathered from the collection as a whole. That is, our stories may be steeped in ambiguity, but if we choose to observe and appreciate them generously, they can miraculously emerge as earnest, unflinching endorsements of radical hope.
The real meat of this story is an old man’s breakfasts and bath times with a wired-up four-year-old, his wrestling for the remote, desperately trying to find some space for himself and his work. Starnone, one of Italy’s most accomplished novelists, knows the territory and delivers it wonderfully. And whatever reservations we may have about the narrator’s cerebral distractions, they do at last allow little Mario to play a quite terrible trick on his granddad. All at once we have the novel’s title and our calamity. It doesn’t disappoint.
In “False Alarms,” a 1936 Three Stooges short, June Gittelson’s character, Minnie, tells Curly: “You’ll like me after we get acquainted. I grow on people.” Curly responds, “So do warts.” Eileen Pollack’s new novel, “The Bible of Dirty Jokes,” also needs to grow on you. Thankfully, the result is a lot more pleasant than a wart.