“The medium is the message,’’ Marshall McLuhan famously said, and when the medium is a novel, the medium can also be a massage: slow . . . and pensive . . . and sensuous. Or an assault: Fast! Loud! Staccato!
In the best novels, the cadence — the rhythm in which the novel speaks or sings or shouts — carries the tune so perfectly, you can hardly hear it at all. The new novel by American literary treasure Hilma Wolitzer (“The Doctor’s Daughter,’’ “Summer Reading,’’ “Hearts’’) is a standout in that regard. Wolitzer set herself a mighty challenge, writing a book-length work about the renewed love life of a nerdy, grief-stricken, 62-year-old science teacher and widower named Edward Schuyler.
Old age is not sexy, conventional wisdom warns. Book buyers are aspirants, not realists. They want pretty tales of pretty, young people they can imagine themselves to be. At 82, Wolitzer deftly defies the ban. Among the skills she employs to accomplish this task: a perspective that only years lived can anoint, and a masterful sense of pacing that mirrors her message, enhancing the tale she’s here to tell in a way that no racing, punk-rock rhythm could.
In the early chapters, which take place months after the excruciating death of Edward’s beloved wife, Bee, grief is the air Edward breathes. He moves slowly through his shrunken life, each step tentative, as if by making himself the “available man’’ of the title, Bee might reach down and snatch him up and take him to where she is - which is where, it is more than implied, he truly wants to be. The narrative moves slowly through these pages, capturing in painful detail the goon squad of grief that hijacks the mourner’s interminable moments and hours and days.
“Edward went into the kitchen and rummaged in what one of the children, in childhood, had aptly dubbed ‘the crazy drawer.’ Among the loose batteries and spare shoelaces, the expired supermarket coupons and the keys that didn’t open any known doors, he found the chain that had briefly kept Bee’s reading glasses conveniently dangling from her neck . . . Now Edward untangled the chain and attached it to his glasses, carefully avoiding his reflection, which he imagined bore an unfortunate resemblance to his third-grade teacher, Miss DuPont.’’
Edward has adult stepchildren who care about him, and so his grieving process, and the narrative’s pace, are hastened by his kids’ determination to get him on the road again by getting him a paramour. Edward resists, believing Bee to be his only-ever other half. Edward reflects, “His own parents had stuck it out, their early passion having metamorphosed into something lower-key but lasting, a soufflé collapsed into a comforting soup of days.’’
Perusing the personal ads at his kids’ insistence, Edward recalls the sarcastic remarks his lost Bee used to make when the two of them read them together for fun. “ ‘Sensual, smart, stunning, sensitive.’ Oh, why do they always resort to alliteration . . . [T]his one’s a music lover! Well, who doesn’t like music, besides the Taliban?’’
Reluctantly, Edward does enter the dating fray, and once he does, the action accelerates along with his heartbeat and his need to change his underwear. As women emerge from the proverbial woodwork, eager to claim the prize of this “available man,’’ Edward unwittingly becomes a serial kisser - in fact, he becomes a bit of a cad.
“The next call was from Peggy, inviting him to a cookout the following evening . . . [W]hat if Ellen turned up there, too? . . . [H]e rode to Ellen’s place . . . Her body language wasn’t difficult to read: arms folded tightly across her chest; chin thrust out, but trembling slightly. Edward felt like a character in a sitcom, the husband caught with lipstick on his collar. Just let me ‘splain, Lucy . . . ‘Carpe diem, right?’ Ellen said. ‘Or maybe I should say seize the man. You’re quite a fast worker, Schuyler.’ ’’
He is a fast worker by this point in the book - faster, at least. And once Edward starts skipping instead of shuffling, he falls prey to the seductive pull of speediness, making mistakes his pain-paralyzed, deliberate self never would have allowed; hurting people (including himself) as we all do when our feet lose contact, however briefly, with the ground.
Thus, Wolitzer uses her gift for her chosen medium, long-form fiction, to deliver a message far broader than this deceptively accessible novel first seems to address. “An Available Man’’ is not just a cautionary tale of geriatric loneliness and sex. It’s a meditation - and then, a breathtaking roller-coaster ride, and then, a meditation again - on what we lose when we allow loss and longing to make us unavailable to ourselves.