Every once in a while, someone writes a book that, on the surface, is simple and quiet, yet underneath is stirringly beautiful and full of life and love. Jill Ciment's new novel, Heroic Measures, is this kind of book. At only 192 pages, this slim, tender novel packs a melancholic punch.
The jacket copy states that this is a novel "about real estate, dog love, and a city on alert," but Heroic Measures is also about aging, terrorism, childlessness, New York City and McCarthyism. And about immigration, the Depression, dachshunds, guide dogs, open houses, bed, bath and beyond, artists, taxi cabs, falafel and animal hospitals.
It is post-9/11, and Ruth and Alex, an elderly childless couple, have finally put their five-storey walk-up New York apartment for sale. Tempted by the almost-million-dollar price their real-estate agent is determined they will get for their two-bedroom apartment, Ruth feels "the number bite her, like a needle, and enter her, like an intoxicating drug. As a child of the Depression, the word millionaire still held a magical spell."
Alex, too, is affected by the numbers, but he is more worried by the prospect of having to store his lifetime of paintings: "He can't shake the feeling that once his old canvases are warehoused, they'll be forgotten, even by him." In the midst of their agonizing decision to sell this apartment and to buy an apartment with an elevator, the elderly couple's 12-year-old dachshund, Dorothy, collapses on the floor in a puddle of her urine and must be hospitalized. As the doctor notes about wiener dogs and slipped discs: "Imagine a suspension bridge without the cables."
As if this isn't enough for Ruth and Alex to bear, the city is suddenly on red alert. An oil tanker truck has skidded into a tunnel, blocking the passage into and out of New York. No one knows where the driver is: Is he a terrorist? New York shuts down. (Literally. The mayor, at one point, orders all the cabs off the road and when they come back, the visual effect is startling: "The lower lanes are solid yellow. Against the bridge's black shadows and the grey afternoon sky, the taxis look dazzling.") Ruth and Alex are stuck walking blocks for help, their little dog carried carefully on a kitchen cutting board.
Written from several points of view - Alex's, Ruth's, Mr. Rahim's (the falafel seller), Dorothy the dachshund's, people on the street - the book weaves a picture of a New York that is still visibly shaking from the effects of 9/11. Ruth, Alex and Dorothy navigate their way through the city, through past and present, through their long relationship and their love, with stoicism and wit. These are characters who are charming and lovely. People you immediately want to know.
This week's Daily Reviews
New York City is alive in Jill Ciment's hands: the taxi driver with "a jackknife-size cross hanging from his rear-view mirror," the "stout old proprietress" at Cosmos Laundromat, the "platinum blond Korean manicurist" smoking in a doorway. Alex and Ruth carry Dorothy through a city full of vibrant characters and wild situations. Even as Ruth is imagining what it would be like to leave New York City, to move to the Jersey shore, or "that car-less island in North Carolina she saw advertised in The New Yorker," she declares herself a "lifelong New Yorker" and thinks, smartly, "How long can you stare at an ocean?" In Heroic Measures, New York is a character full of life and personality.
This is a quietly suspenseful novel. Will Alex and Ruth sell their apartment? Will Dorothy survive? Will the oil tanker blow up? Will Alex and Ruth get the apartment they have bid on? Will the confused truck driver take hostages? You are compelled to read. The ending comes as a surprise. Only three days pass in this story, but when you put Heroic Measures down, you feel as if you've spent a lifetime immersed in Jill Ciment's remarkably touching and hopeful world.
Michelle Berry's new story collection, I Still Don't Even Know You, will be published in April, 2010.