Book Review: An Available Man
by Hilma Wolitzer
Ballantine Books, 2012
Hilma Wolitzer’s quiet and intensely memorable new novel An Available Man opens with its main character, reserved science teacher Edward Schuyler, almost entirely numb with grief at the loss of his wife Bee to pancreatic cancer half a year previous. He watches the bird-feeder hanging outside the window, but he neglects his bird-watching journal. He goes through the mechanics of dealing with bills and sympathy cards, but as his stepchildren realize, his emotional life has essentially stopped.
When his wife had been heavily medicated and dying, she’d said to him at one point, “Look at you. They’ll be crawling out of the woodwork,” but Edward had dismissed it as the free-association of a woman fading away. It’s only months after she’s gone, after all the compulsory public offices of grief have been filled and he’s on his own, that Edward realizes what Bee had meant – because that’s when the phone calls start coming.
Calls from lonely widows in his immediate circle, of course. In Wolitzer (mother of novelist Meg Wolitzer)’s rather Darwinian view of East Coast urban life, the titular ‘available man’ will inevitably become the focus of romantic and/or matrimonial attention for every pining woman within six miles and six degrees of separation. Wolitzer does an extremely effective job of conveying Edward’s intelligent, circumspect nature, so when he feels initial disgust at this amorous attention (like finding “the hair in the casserole”), readers feel it right along with him. That disgust is rendered all the stronger because for most of their married life, Edward and Bee never considered the possibility. Wolitzer’s customary blending of tenderness and wry humor captures the gradual changing of that certainty:
They were lucky, enchanted, even, and so were their friends. The years tripped by and several of their parents, including both of Edward’s and Bee’s father, succumbed to illness and old age, while they remained indestrucible. Then a long-married couple in their crowd was killed instantly in a car crash. The first among them to go, as if they’d invented death the way they’d once invented love.
Bee remarks at the time, “Our circle is getting smaller and smaller. Soon we’ll only be a semicircle,” to which Edward responds with unwitting prescience, “And then a comma.”
Those phone calls are only the beginning. Edward’s stepdaughter and his stepson’s wife create one of those annoying personal ads that so mesmerize certain readers of The New York Review of Books (indeed, it’s easy to imagine this entire novel having its ultimate seed in Wolitzer reading such ads and letting her novelist’s imagination start to work on the people behind them), and soon readers are following our shell-shocked but well-intentioned reluctant Lothario through all the nightmarish awkwardness and stilted anticlimaxes of the modern dating scene. Wolitzer’s tone throughout is undemonstratively low-key, but her perceptions are spot-on – anybody who’s ever answered a personal ad will instantly recognize at least a few of the tortures Edward endures.
Wolitzer isn’t in the business of shocking her readers – that’s absolutely not why she writes her books – and although develoments in the second half of An Available Man would have astonished novelists a century ago (when age equalled retirement from the active, emotional parts of life), they’ll largely come as no surprise to modern readers even passingly familiar with the current subgenre of ‘second chance’ romances that’s blossomed as American life expectancy grows (where a man’s death at 60 will prompt all his peers to comment that “he was so young” – much to the horror of any grandchildren who happen to overhear). The book’s closest approximation of an antagonist is foreshadowed very early on, as is one of the key’s to book’s climax. The various twists and turns of Wolitzer’s plot are gentle, and the focus is very much inward, on the gradual accommodation Edward’s grief makes for other, brighter feelings.
As a result, there’s little doubt at any point that Edward will come to decide that he’s actually betraying Bee’s memory if he lets the loss of her companionship turn him into a solitary punctuation mark. It’s Wolitzer’s light and smart execution of her modern-day fairy tale that make it so much worth reading on a rainy afternoon.