In 1986, Harold Brodkey proclaimed himself "the voice of the coming age." Twenty years later, and a decade after his death from AIDS in 1996, at the age of sixty-five, Brodkey has all but disappeared from public memory. His several books of fiction are out of print, and he remains largely unremarked upon in critical circles. There are plenty of explanations for Brodkey's current neglect, including the writer's acrimonious relationship with the publishing industry and the failure of his later novels to fulfill the promise of earlier work. His own penchant for extolling his reputation and legacy perhaps intruded on a clearheaded appraisal of his writing. But readers and writers alike ignore his project at their peril. Brodkey's prose, almost suffocating in its density and focus, was produced at a time when American novels were expanding in length and scope but shrinking from the great challenge of rendering individual consciousness. Gravity's Rainbow, The Recognitions, and Underworld remain the landmarks of an encyclopedic fiction that subordinates the intimate depiction of character to the voluminous documentation of history and culture. Brodkey produced fiction that was epic too, but chiefly in its elaboration of human intimacy. To read his prose is to be incarcerated in the situations of his characters; indeed, it is to be very nearly overwhelmed by them. Even as John Barth famously eulogized the "completed program" of high modernism, Brodkey moved forward with new forms for rendering human consciousness. His protagonist was, almost always, "a mind shaped like a person." The action consisted of that mind discovering its thoughts.
While Pynchon, Gaddis, and DeLillo were busy chronicling the capacious comedy of culture, Brodkey staged, in relentless, repetitive fragments, the tragic theater of self. To the degree he was successful, he advanced the "program" not just of high modernism but of fiction in general. Perhaps more than any writer since Joyce, he held the torchlight of language to the inner workings of human consciousness.
The narratives in Brodkey's three remarkable collections and one major novel concern preponderantly the midwestern upbringing of a bright, traumatized boy, called alternately "Wiley Silenowicz" or "Alan Cohn" or "Buddy" or "Harold Brodkey." The boy was born in Staunton, Illinois, to poor Jewish immigrants in 1930. His mother, "Ceil," died when he was two. Months later, he was sold by his abusive junkman of a father to the Brodkeys (or, most often, the "Silenowiczs"), who took him to University (U or "Jew") City, a suburb of Saint Louis. The boy was mute until age four, but was a "genius," based on his IQ score, by age six. When he was nine, his adoptive father, Joseph Brodkey (or "S. L. Silenowicz"), had a heart attack or stroke and became an invalid. Three years later his adoptive mother, Doris (or "Lila" or "Leil"), was diagnosed with cancer. Both died before the boy was eighteen, though by the time his adoptive mother passed away he was already at Harvard, where he would meet his first wife, a dark-haired Radcliffe coed named Joanna Brown (or "Orra" or "Ora").
Throughout his career, Brodkey deliberated obsessively over these same several characters and childhood scenes. He seemed to conceive of his fiction as a knife that sharpened with each thrust into the past. Each authorial incision drew closer to the layered meaning of a given experience or confrontation. "I found out that Proust had lied," Brodkey said. "You don't taste a madeleine cookie and everything comes flooding back." For Brodkey, the past returned in bits and chunks, fragments and apparitions; in each successive tale he revealed that much more. Perhaps only Henry James has left such a transparent record of the attempt to hone language toward truth.
"State of Grace," Brodkey's first short story (purportedly penned in forty-five minutes to buy his wife a new washing machine), focuses on a teenager in suburban Saint Louis and the needy younger boy he baby-sits. Verging on sentimentality, Brodkey nonetheless demonstrates the layered conflation of narrator and protagonist that was to distinguish much of his later work. This technique allowed him to probe at remembered moments, opening them up to ambiguity and argument. At the end of the story, the mature man looks back on his younger self with regrets: "All I know is that Edward needed my love and I wouldn't give it to him . . . I was only thirteen. There isn't much you can blame a boy of thirteen for, but I'm not thinking of blame. I'm thinking of all the years that might have been—if only I'd known what I know now."
Published in the New Yorker in 1953, "State of Grace" was gathered with other stories that appeared in the magazine during the '50s for Brodkey's first collection, First Love and Other Sorrows (1957). Most of these were conventional third-person vignettes of married life in the suburbs in the mode of John Cheever; they also resembled—and suffered by comparison to—the early stories of another recent Harvard grad and New Yorker mainstay, John Updike. Brodkey was not completely satisfied with his early efforts, which were traditionally plotted and approached the workings of consciousness with familiar tools. "In the '50s I wrote in a way in which the lives I wrote about made a Freudian and sociological sense," Brodkey said in 1986, "but they don't. American lives are completely insane . . . that's what I write about [now]."
The early stories nevertheless established the young Brodkey as a promising talent and won him an advance for a novel from Random House in 1964. By that time, he had divorced his first wife. Throughout the '60s, he slept around (he claims to have bedded Marilyn Monroe and had several homosexual relationships during this time), went to a lot of parties (some of which show up in later stories featuring his poet friend Frank O'Hara), and published several more pieces in the New Yorker.
In "The Abundant Dreamer" (1963), "On the Waves" (1965), and "The Shooting Range" (1969), Brodkey began to approximate his later style. The dominant voice remained third person, but the prose lurched into cadences of consciousness and subjectivity: Marcus, the American filmmaker in "The Abundant Dreamer," sometimes feels "that his skull had become a darkened, quite silent movie theater; what his mind thought and senses saw appeared in the very center of his attention, easily decipherable, distinct." Ann, the mercurial heroine of "The Shooting Range," thinks she has an "empty space inside [herself] . . . as empty as a parade ground across which the shattering rattle could resound without obstruction."
In 1973, Brodkey achieved his mature style and exhibited its full potential with "Innocence" and "Play," both published in the now defunct American Review. Thought by some to be fragments of the novel Brodkey had agreed to write twelve years earlier, the stories were symmetrical explorations of sexual climax, one in a repressed college girl (Orra), the other in an eleven-year-old boy (Wiley). Gone were the conventions of character and plot that had shackled some of his earlier prose. Instead of crafting a familiar narrative arc, Brodkey ceaselessly circled a set of intensely personal events. The prose, too, was tireless and elliptical; it progressed by accretion, sentences crashing on meaning like waves to shore, then rushing back to reconsider from a different distance or angle.
"I distrust summaries, any kind of gliding through time," Brodkey wrote in "Innocence." Indeed, the new stories had the feeling of archaeological digs, of language lowered down to excavate for truth. "Play" was a recapitulation of the relationship in "State of Grace" between the adolescent babysitter and his younger charge. As with all of Brodkey's recapitulations, detail is added to sharpen meaning in the second telling. This time, Wiley and Randolph ("Edward" in the earlier story) are wrestling under a bed when the older boy, Wiley, becomes sexually aroused. Brodkey's description of Wiley's first climax is itself a rhetorical leap over boundaries of grammar and diction; the clipped, tumbling prose vividly captures the terrifying obscurity of physical sensation in a young boy:
And I went over a—a thing, tumbled over the round globe, and off into the darkness, scattering warm, strangely liquescent sparks, uncolored but scorching; something scorched me; I felt something like a wire whip through me; it was drawn through me and then from me, eviscerating me; I was thrown into grief, into astonishment, into a strange nothingness, a blankness of feeling unlike anything I'd ever known. In the posture of a dead man listening to the floor, I rolled over. There was another, fainter brief whistling in me, a feeling of softened light rising and filling something, like a thunderhead, and then a hand, a hand broke through the ceiling of the room, took hold of me, and shook me, and squeezed me, so that I thought I would die. . . . It squeezed me until I was dead, and then I was boneless and limp, and without comprehension.
Brodkey's commanding facility with words and overt treatment of sexual situations created a literary stir from which he emerged with a reputation as an original and daunting fictional voice. Later in 1973, "A Story in an Almost Classical Mode," appearing in the New Yorker, detailed Brodkey's life during the squalid period when both of his adoptive parents were terminally ill—Joe in hospital care, Doris roaming the house (in this story only, he used their real names) high and wild on prescription drugs. The tension surrounds the mother and son's battle to endure each other's company, which becomes a bullfight of wits, an emotional cage match: "It was queer, the daily confrontations, Doris and me not knowing what she wanted from me or even what the riddle really was that she was asking. She crouched there . . . and she asked me some Theban riddle while she was blurred with drugs, with rage, and I looked at her and did not know what to do." The boy does not know what to do, but he thinks about an answer. Meanwhile Doris harangues him with her pain: "You'll end up like me if you don't help me!" And: "Why don't you put yourself in my place and understand what I'm going through?"
Finally the boy, "Harold Brodkey," puts himself in her place; he imagines himself a "loose-fleshed, loose-boned soft-looking woman" like Doris. That, the boy realizes, is the riddle's solution: To understand Doris, "Brodkey" has to become her. In the story's penultimate sequence, he metamorphoses into a woman, a sick middle-aged woman named Doris:
Now suddenly, almost with a kind of excitement—well, with a dry excitement as in writing out an answer to an essay question on a test, working out an outline, a structure, seeing a thing take shape—I suddenly saw how shy I'd been about the physical thing, and with what seemed to me incredible daring (and feeling unclean, coated with uncleanliness), I imagined my hips as being my shoulders: I hardly used my hips for anything; and my shoulders, which were sort of the weighty center of most of my movements and of my strength, as being my hips. I began to feel very hot; I was flushed—and humiliated. Then after a moment's thought, going almost blind with embarrassment—and sweat—I put my behind on my chest. Then I whacked my thing off quickly and I moved my hole to my crotch. I felt it would be hard to stand up, to walk, to bestir myself; I felt sheathed in embarrassment, impropriety, in transgressions that did not stay still but floated out like veils; every part of me was sexual and jutted out one way or another. I really was infinitely ashamed—there was no part of me that wasn't dirty, that wouldn't interfere with someone else's thoughts and suggest things. I seemed bound up, packaged, tied in this, and in extra flesh. . . . I was suddenly very bad-tempered.
Never one for understatement, Brodkey later suggested that such a scene had "never been done before." He had a point. Here is one human being quite literally inhabiting another. Gregor Samsa's transformation into a cockroach isn't half such a feat. The change is for Wiley like "writing out an answer"—it consists of the very strenuous work of seeing from another person's point of view. Brodkey had rendered not only consciousness, but the act of one consciousness straining to enter another.
* * *
In the Threepenny Review, the novelist Millicent Dillon remembered confronting "A Story in an Almost Classical Mode" for the first time:
I remember that I read the story over and then over again. I did not try to read it critically, analytically. In some way it resisted analysis. I was only attempting to identify the experience embodied in—called up by—the story, an experience that was stunning, awesome, and puzzling. . . . I do now recall that the first experience of reading this story was for me almost like being in the grip of a shared benediction.
Dillon's reaction—including the abundant use of superlatives—was characteristic of the reception Brodkey garnered from prominent figures. Cynthia Ozick said Brodkey was "a true artist." Harold Bloom later anointed him the "American Proust." Such critical raves, even more than the fiction itself, led to an unusual degree of anticipation for Brodkey's supposedly imminent novel. The novel, however, did not appear. Notes accompanying Brodkey's stories in the American Review promised it was coming in the fall of 1973, then "next year." Three years later, in 1976, the New York Times reported that Brodkey had turned in a two-thousand-page manuscript to his publisher.
In the meantime, unpublished fragments of the novel circulated like gold coins in the New York literary world. The consensus was that the book would cement Brodkey's reputation as a major writer, perhaps a truly "great" writer. The editor Gordon Lish predicted it would "surpass almost anything you or I have ever read." Denis Donoghue opined that it was a "work of genius. As good as Proust."
But, for years after the Times's announcement, there was no novel. The writer's reputation began to be linked inextricably to his publishing "problems." "Brodkey has become a bit of a con job," wrote James Wolcott in Vanity Fair. "The clouds of sanctity circling his domed stadium of a head have begun to get a little perfumy." Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley inquired, "What . . . are we to make of a writer who is famous . . . primarily for not publishing his work?"
Brodkey's progress during this time was "a kind of parlor guessing game in literary Manhattan, a stream of questions, rumor and gossip fueled occasionally . . . by extraordinary sightings in print," observed David Remnick, then at the Washington Post. Still, even as Brodkey disappointed expectations, his new work garnered prizes and acclaim. In 1975, "His Son in His Arms, in Light, Aloft" was published in Esquire and won first prize in the annual O. Henry collection. Three years later, "Verona: A Young Woman Speaks," also published in Esquire, was included in 1978's Best Short Stories.
The controversy over Brodkey's work even boiled over into mainstream outlets like People. In the '80s, his life and work were profiled in Vanity Fair, The Economist, and New York. Each new article rehashed the particulars of the pitched battle over Brodkey's "reputation," a battle intensified by the writer's own baffling, often contradictory statements: "I'm not sure that I'm not a coward," Brodkey told Remnick. "If some of the people who talk to me are right, well, to be possibly not only the best living writer in English, but someone who could be the rough equivalent of a Wordsworth or a Milton, is not a role that a halfway educated Jew from St. Louis with two sets of parents and a junkman father is prepared to play." He told New York, "I'm nowhere. I'm part of a tradition of failure, another version of the mad Delmore Schwartz or James Agee."
Finally, in 1985, Brodkey published his first book since First Love and Other Sorrows more than twenty-five years earlier, a slim volume of three long short stories, bound together by the Jewish Publication Society of America, and titled Women and Angels. The stories collected were "Ceil," about Brodkey's birth mother; "Lila," about his adoptive mother; and "Angel," about a supernatural visitation in Harvard Yard. The volume was little reviewed, but Leon Wieseltier in the New Republic took the time to explain that the first two stories established Brodkey as "an unpleasant man, immensely alive." In the New York Review of Books, D. J. Enright praised "Angel" but said the other stories were "more boring than nasty" and provided "little evidence . . . of a specifically novelistic gift."
Incensed at what he took to be uncommonly personal attacks, Brodkey penned a ten-thousand-word reply to the NYRB (less than half of which was published), in which he charged that he'd been misquoted and slandered. "I know of no other occasion in the last few decades," Brodkey wrote, specifically addressing Enright's pejorative use of Wieseltier's "unpleasant man" jibe, "in which such a remark . . . has been applied to a living writer."
Such public feuds would become commonplace as Brodkey elbowed his way more forcefully into the public realm. Attacks on his writing rarely went unaddressed, and typically his statements tended to inflame the controversy: "I've been treated so badly, given no prizes, pushed off into a corner," he said, an odd complaint given that Brodkey was making a living off a reputation gleaned from several dozen short stories. Another time he protested, "I am hated. Anybody I'm not particularly fond of will tend to dislike me as an act of self-defense because of who I am." And then: "In a certain sense I am the literary establishment."
* * *
In 1988, Knopf published Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, a collection of Brodkey's major fiction, including the Women and Angels stories, since 1960. Critics tended to approve of the book when they reviewed it, but for many it represented merely another delay. After all, it was not the novel, and many of the stories had appeared in the New Yorker and Esquire years earlier. But reading the (more or less) chronologically ordered stories together affords an opportunity to chart Brodkey's evolution over the decades. The process is especially rewarding because the writer's work was so narrowly focused—it is possible to observe specific scenes develop from vague outlines into acute, complicated, often painful illuminations. For example, "His Son, in His Arms, in Light, Aloft" details an anonymous boy's hazy memory of being carried by his father as a child:
We are moving, this elephant and I, we are lumbering, down some steps, across grassy, uneven ground—the spoiled child in his father's arms—behind our house was a little park. . . . There are sun's rays on the dome of the Moorish bandstand. . . . We overrun the world, he and I, with his legs, with our eyes, with our alliance. We move on in a ghostly torrent of our being like this.
Ten years later (and a couple hundred pages away in the collection), Brodkey wrote "S. L." (1985). This time the father is not really a father and the son not yet a son. The story concerns a boy, Wiley, abandoned by his parents, and a man, S. L., considering whether he should adopt the child. S. L. takes the boy to the park behind his house and they wander around a Moorish bandstand in a kind of audition. The boy, described as "spoiled" in "His Son," is now cast as mute, ailing, deprived. The italicized subtitle proclaims, "1932: the child has not been adopted yet."
In this recasting of the father-son dyad, when the child is lifted up, it is no joyful game but an edifying symbol of acceptance (sort of). Brodkey's acrimonious relationship with his adoptive father—which included, for a period of at least two years, some form of sexual abuse—shadows this second version. S. L.'s saccharine physical presence, his semi-obscene sense of humor with the child, the sinister element in being carried, helpless—these things find their way into the narrator's new recollection of what it was like:
The elephant-gray mass and rumble of the air, and the itchy, carpetlike closeness of Da's heat. . . . My face snakily writhes against the fat, resilient bicep of Daddy's arm. I am now largely on my belly in his arms. "From the backside you look just like everyone else, kiddo—you look like an asshole." I hang, I arch—like a bowsprit—a branch of the rubbery, muscle-and-spine, oaken pounding-along tree of that man: this is in the state of Illinois, in the now quickening rain; he is running toward the gate of the park: I see the torn rooms of the out-of-doors. Dad says, "NO," and refolds me in his arms, defining me as Error and A Fool and someone he wants bodily near him, someone whose bodily welfare concerns him: it's interesting and I start to laugh.
Other moments from Brodkey's childhood—Doris's cancer, Joe's infidelity—play out over and over in Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, as they do throughout Brodkey's oeuvre. In "Largely an Oral History of My Mother," a narrator named Alan briefly remembers going as a boy to buy a car with his dad. Brodkey later expanded the story to some sixty pages in "Car Buying," adding, for instance, that the father stopped to see his mistress on the way to the dealership. The addition of such information reconfigures Brodkey's previous appraisal of the situation; the reader of both stories can never be sure where the author stands in relation to his material. This was exactly how Brodkey wanted it. In his best stories, ultimate meaning remains finally, and intentionally, elusive. Brodkey always leaves open the possibility that more material may be added at a later date: "A story is a brighter substance when it isn't finished," he once wrote, "when it is still hints and guesses, a family matter like a child's face."
* * *
Brodkey published his first novel as he was entering his sixties. Given the literary world's expectations, it could not but have been a disappointment. As it was, The Runaway Soul—the story of Wiley Silenowicz's coming of age, once again, in the Midwest—only confirmed, at some nine hundred pages, the unsuitability of Brodkey's prose for an expansive fictional endeavor. Essentially plotless, the book is a palimpsest of discontinuous vignettes with little connective tissue. While these sketches are thematically linked (for instance, we go from Wiley's sister looking for a boyfriend in 1934 to Brodkey having sex with Ora in 1956), there is no thematic progression, only the persistent rephrasing of certain ideas and notions. Robert Adams of the New York Review of Books called the novel a "medley of Balkanized writings" with no "symphonic coherence."
As in Brodkey's later short stories, the only drama in The Runaway Soul is that of Wiley's thought processes and the language Brodkey employs to describe them. To begin the novel, the author goes back the furthest he has ever gone, to "the fantastic sloppiness of one's coming into existence": "I was slapped and hurried along in the private applause of birth," Wiley says. "I think I remember this. Well, I imagine it anyway—the blind boy's rose-and-milk-and-gray-walled (and salty) aquarium, the aquarium overthrown, the uproar in the woman-barn. . . . I think I remember the actual breath couched in me and then leaping out yowlingly: this uncancellable sort of beginning."
Juxtaposed with the child's physical birth is his intellectual one: "The other birth—of a mind shaped like a person—all that skull buzz and mumble—a mind starting up, a mind that wants so much to know the truth that it makes the effort and takes the shape of a boy—and comes into existence." The two births announce the narrator of the story, indeed the narrator of all of Brodkey's stories: a body and a mind, capable of action and error. Such descriptions may be exhilarating, but Brodkey's novel attempts to pick its way through the moribund density of Wiley's thought. Where the intensity of a given sensual moment is enough to sustain many of Brodkey's short stories, the weighty piling of such charged instants induces suffocation in the novel. Typical sections in The Runaway Soul portray Wiley masturbating, Wiley sleeping and waking, Wiley having sex with Ora (one such section runs some two hundred pages). Such scenes feature mostly static characters, largely disconnected from preceding or following scenes, linked only by Wiley's racing, incongruent thoughts.
Accordingly, Brodkey's critics called the book—in fact, they often took the chance to extend this to his entire body of work—self-indulgent, narcissistic, and manipulative. Hilton Kramer, in an extreme but characteristic response, said it was "appalling" to behold a "grown-up mind mired for nearly three decades in this fruitless task of writing and overwriting, of revision and amplification and extension and further revision," all the while "scarcely noticing that the world was passing through adventures and upheavals far more compelling and far more interesting than its own."
Brodkey still had his defenders. James Wood said Brodkey's prose was "unlike any other writer's in the English language," while Salman Rushdie lavished praise on The Runaway Soul's "long portmanteau sentences." But these were rearguard battles, and their tone was defensive.They focused on Brodkey the stylist because he had failed as a storyteller. Brodkey seemed to have finally carried his devotion to inwardness and repetition past the point of creative indulgence. The very qualities that had made him such a bracing presence decades earlier had, at long last, tired even his most faithful readers.
* * *
Given his peripatetic publishing history, Brodkey more than compensated in his later years, producing three books, all in different genres—fiction (Profane Friendship), travel writing (My Venice), and memoir (This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death)—between 1991 and the year of his death, 1996. Two more collections—one of short stories (The World Is the Home of Love and Death) and another of surprisingly lucid nonfiction writings (Sea Battles on Dry Land), first published in the New Yorker, mostly during Tina Brown's reign at the magazine—appeared posthumously in the late '90s. That two of Brodkey's last efforts were set abroad (both in Venice) was perhaps no accident. Though interest in Brodkey waned in the United States after the publication of The Runaway Soul, his writing continued to win considerable acclaim in Europe.
To the end, Brodkey continued with Kramer's "fruitless task"—that is, "writing and overwriting . . . revision and amplification and extension." What the critic found "appalling" was in fact the radical bulwark of Brodkey's project, at the core of which was the Proustian notion that "moving on" is an action no one undertakes successfully. Every moment is enough material for a life's work. Not even one minute of one's life can be outlived or decisively rendered. The very unknowability of experience constituted for Brodkey its ultimate beauty: In his memoir, he wrote, "I can't remember ever wishing life and death had a perceptible, known, over-all meaning." His writing was radical not because it tackled new subjects, but because he arrived at new senses of meaning, more intimate (if less definite) than before.
These concerns may seem dated in a climate that is increasingly hostile to fiction concerned centrally with consciousness and personal emotion. Some authors and critics now argue for a literary fiction that more closely mimics film and is focused on social, rather than personal, reality. Others posit a more journalistic fiction, offering information about the world. V. S. Naipaul, in a recent interview with the New York Times, voiced the ascendant notion that "if you spend your life just writing fiction, you are going to falsify your material," adding that fiction writers should take more nonfiction assignments, so they might "explore . . . the other world, the world that one didn't know fully."
But exploration of faraway places, the documenting of social reality—Brodkey's work should remind us that these things are tangential and sometimes even inimical to fiction's core appeal. Today's fiction writers bring us news from worlds they don't "know fully," but the results can be disappointing. The news we want from fiction resides faraway in ourselves. If fiction enjoys one true advantage over any other art, it is its capacity to depict the inner machinery of self.
Brodkey may have failed to cement his legacy with a great novel, but his fiction should nevertheless light a path for contemporary writers still interested in the personal. He demonstrated that one can write about character and emotion without giving ground to traditional notions of "truth" and "meaning." In fact, it was the absence of those supposed verities that lent his prose its eccentric grace—of every interaction, every exchange of language, there was more to be said. "Since T. S. Eliot," he told an undergraduate publication at Yale, "there's been this conscious sense of exhaustion. I'm opposed to that, in my writing. . . . Where [Eliot] looks at language and sees all this failure to communicate, I look at it and see all the things people are saying."
In a series of magazine pieces devoted to his death, eventually collected as the memoir This Wild Darkness, Brodkey proved there was "more to say" about even the most overwritten of human mysteries. Returning briefly to the limelight as a subject of controversy after being diagnosed with AIDS in the mid-'90s, Brodkey immediately began writing about the experience for the New Yorker. Most of those pieces appeared as Brodkey was dying. Few writers have died more publicly or, in print, less flinchingly. Never missing a chance to castigate his rivals, Brodkey lamented it was "so boring to be ill, rather like being trapped in an Updike novel." He ruminated on his life ("I like my life at present. . . . Sometimes I'm sad about its being over, but I'm that way about books and sunsets and conversations"), his legacy ("I think my work will live. And I am tired of defending it"), and the controversy that engulfed his career ("I have been sniped at in the gossip-flood of New York and used up enormous amounts of energy dealing with it all"). For the first time, he reflected on the sexual abuse that shadowed so much of his writing about "S. L.," saying he had "experimented with homosexuality" to open himself to the memory of what had happened (the kind of statement that enraged gay acquaintances who accused Brodkey of downplaying his homosexual tendencies).
But most of all Brodkey reflected on his death, and he rendered the event with the same microscopic intensity as he had so much of his life. Dying of AIDS is approached not politically but as a sensory and intellectual experience, the "yowling" body and the "mind that wants so much to know the truth" both coming to an end. Like his best short stories, the memoir circles around the main subject with anecdotes and memories from the past, with philosophizing and irony and some morbid comedy—then it dives down, suddenly, into the humbling morass that is actually having to die:
Sometimes I can still sleep it off, my fear. My dreams are gentle now even when they are about being mugged, robbed and knocked down, even when I am pressing my car key into a bit of yielding earth. But often in the afternoons I wake after a nap with an awful sense of its being over and that it never meant much; I never had a life. The valuable sweetness and the hard work are infected by the fact of death: they no longer seem to have been so wonderful, but they are all I had. And then I want to be comforted. I want my old, unthreatening forms of silence, and comedy-and-cowardice. I want breath and stories
and the world.
Jonathan Baskin is a writer living in New York City.