JANUARY 16, 2016
“HE TRAVELLED.” So begins the famously brief passage from Sentimental Education in which Gustave Flaubert condenses a decade and a half of his hero’s life into a few sentences. During that time, we learn that Frédéric has tasted “the bitterness of ruptured sympathies” — sympathies interrompues — a phrase that calls to mind the narrative rhythm jolted by Flaubert’s rude acceleration.
There are no such wild temporal leaps in Between You and Me, Scott Nadelson’s tale of a middle-aged Manhattanite’s domestication in the “raccoon-infested wilds of northern New Jersey.” Befitting its “serious, predictable, conscientious, and forthright” protagonist, Paul Haberman, the novel’s 10 episodes proceed with metronymic regularity over 20 years beginning in 1981 (with some brief, melodic “Nocturnes” thrown in for good measure). But whereas Jane Smiley’s recently completed Last Hundred Years trilogy uses a similar chronological structure expansively, gradually compiling a national history from a familial one, Between You and Me constricts as it goes along, burrowing deeper into Paul rather than assembling a social portrait of the last 20 years of the American century. A “new, civilized Bryant Park” does emerge during the Giuliani era, Paul begrudgingly learns how to work a computer, and the faintest specter of 9/11 hovers, perhaps, in the concluding episode. However, despite its insistence on marking the passing years, the novel feels almost ahistorical, limiting its scope as it does to a somewhat Prufrockian hero’s attempt to put down roots with a woman and her two children.
When that hero learns the meaning of his last name, Haberman, “one who grows or sells oats,” he reacts with his typical mixture of muted disappointment and resignation:
It had never occurred to Paul to wonder about the name, but now he wished it were more distinguished, something that suggested his family’s unique qualities, thought what those were he couldn’t have said. He didn’t even like oatmeal.
The plangent humor of that last line — the idea that if he did like oatmeal, the name (and the world) might make a little more sense — permeates Nadelson’s skillful portrait of that most exotic of species: the insurance lawyer.
In reviewing shorthand, “quiet” can be just as ambiguous a descriptor as “ambitious.” The latter usually implies that the work in question is flawed — overambitious, in fact. “Quiet,” on the other hand, carries with it a faint note of resignation to oblivion, commercial and otherwise. Let us all agree that the characters are well-drawn, the emotions earned, the humor wry, and the muted epiphanies just unexpected enough and move on with our reading lives, maybe to one of those ambitious novels lurking on our reading lists.
All this to say that Between You and Me is a lovely, quiet novel. And yet part of the reason I enjoyed it as much as the more obstreperous works I’ve encountered recently — Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Steve Toltz’s Quicksand — is because it is loudly quiet. The novel proclaims its quietness from the start with an epigraph from Wright Morris’s The Works of Love that establishes the parameters, and indeed the challenge, of the novel to come: “A man who headed no cause, fought in no wars, and passed his life unaware of the great public issues — it might be asked: why trouble with such a man at all?” (I say “challenge,” but then again, much of American fiction has never shied away from such men, especially when they live in the suburbs, that breeding ground of unfulfilled, surprisingly novelistic lives.)
But Nadelson does take great trouble — methodical, leisurely, rewarding trouble — with his man without qualities. At the beginning of the novel, Paul is a successful 40-something bachelor living in Manhattan. Used to dating younger women, he meets someone his own age, Cynthia, at a Passover Seder. She is a divorced high school counselor, “writing letters of recommendation for half the population, bound for college, recommending drug rehab programs for the other, bound for prison,” living in suburban New Jersey with two young children. She captivates him, and he soon proposes, but even Paul’s bliss is defined by a certain velleity:
It astonished him to think he could have been content with anything else, and again he had the feeling that he’d wasted time, that he could have had what he’d wanted all along, if only he’d been brave enough to decide what that was … And this, he supposed, was what he’d wanted all along. A family with no obligation, no responsibilities other than those he already had.
When years later, a stand-up comic heckles him at a fundraiser — “Just stepkids, huh? What’s the matter, Paul, too lazy to make your own?” — he inadvertently homes in on this tendency to drift into situations rather than initiate or shape them. As Nadelson remarks elsewhere about the unanchored quality of his protagonist: “His roots were so shallow, no more than a few inches into soil. No wonder the slightest tug made him tilt.”
In two previous books, which also revolved around a New Jersey Jewish family (the Brickmans), Nadelson shifted viewpoints among the family members. Here, the close third-person narration always tracks Paul, which preserves the mystery of just what his family thinks of him; what is behind his stepdaughter’s inscrutable looks or his wife’s lingering bemusement, “as if, after twelve years, he was still just a stranger who’d showed up in the house one day and never left.”
Paul is a cautious hero who detests the unremarkable life that caution has produced. Unlike the typical bore, he is acutely aware of being uninteresting, or at least unmemorable, to other people. He is always being mistaken for someone else, most hilariously by his mechanic, who solicits his advice under the mistaken impression that he’s a doctor. (Paul doesn’t have the temerity to correct him.) He occasionally feels unappreciated as a husband and a stepfather, but also willingly adopts a self-effacing role. One revealing, affecting passage recounts Paul’s “most important contribution” to the household — tracking down his stepchildren’s far-flung shoes each night, arranging them in pairs, and untying the laces, even growing out his nails to make the task easier. No one ever acknowledges his efforts, which if anything adds to the “private pleasure” he takes in the task.
Paul feels and inspires feeling, but the most vital things he wishes to communicate remain unexpressed. He takes his stepchildren to a Mahler concert, after which, sounding like Henry James’s Lambert Strether, wanting to urge them to live all they can: “Just, for God’s sake, don’t be like me.” But instead of telling them that it’d be a mistake not to live all they can, he can only think it. A scene in which he writes a letter of congratulations to his stepson — the first draft intimate, revelatory, honest, the final draft cursory and impersonal — again reveals the disconnect between what is felt and expressed. As if his body revolts from such bottled up sentiment, he collapses one day with a hernia, an affliction in which one’s insides literally spill out.
Checking in on Paul over the years, nothing momentous occurs, wonderfully. Paul is confronted by a sebaceous teenager over a parking space, an encounter in which he is more a reflective spectator than participant; enviously watches two men play ping-pong, and eat a hot dog during his lunch break (“Unlike Paul, they deserved all the chili and onions they wanted”); suspiciously watches his stepson Kyle research his European ancestors (“Who were these people to him? Who was Kyle, for that matter?”); chats with his rabbi about lust and wisdom; graciously consents to getting fleeced by a mechanic called the Flarin’ Baron (“Italian and American cars only!”); is roasted after he suffers a coughing fit during a comic’s act (“Would you please die of consumption on your own time?”), settles his mother into a nursing home; contemplates a fling, and Giacometti sculptures, on a business trip to Zurich; does some amateur acting (“Who knew I had so many people inside me?”); and has a medical emergency on the eve of his stepdaughter’s wedding (“It was the most dramatic thing that had ever happened to him, and in the end nothing had come of it”). Each episode reveals his anxieties and affections, his perceptiveness and bafflement (“the world was far more complicated than he knew”), his appeal and intractable ordinariness.
Not that Paul doesn’t surprise us: he is capable of small acts of pettiness, self-aggrandizement, rebellion, and creativity, all rendered here with perfectly calibrated comic and emotional insight. Nadelson’s dry wit and sense of the ridiculous balance his hero’s more pathetic tendencies, and yet he resists minimizing Paul’s situation, which, along with Nadelson’s voice, still resounds in my ears. In his less stoic moments, Paul exhorts the world to notice him: “Please see me, he thought, with a measure of self-pity, believing no one ever had.” (It’s hard not to hear in this the plaintive cry of quiet literary fiction.)
At one point, distinctly prosaic though he is, Paul is seized by a poetic impulse, condensing his nighttime reading on New World explorers and his neighbor’s automobile into a little Imagist poem: “Around the Cape of Good Hope / A Black man in a green Corvette.” He experiences a “burst of vitality,” but the epiphanies here and elsewhere are ephemeral, never quite bridging the gap across the chapters, each of which introduces us to a slightly older Paul, a little wiser but still — and this is what makes him worth troubling over — quietly uneasy with his place in the world.