Starting Out the Evening is a novel by Brian Morton, published in 1998. It won a number of awards when it was published, earned great reviews from the major critics (“Nothing less than a triumph”–The New York Times Book Review), and was adapted into a movie starring Frank Langella. Yet it’s not exactly a well-known novel. (Is it? Have you heard of it? I’m kind of hoping that I’m mistaken). I’m not exactly sure what makes some well-regarded novels household names, while others seem destined for obscurity. Ironically enough, that’s the basic scenario of Starting Out the Evening. The subject is Leonard Schiller, a seventy-year-old author. He has published four books over the course of his career, and while he’s a respected novelist, he’s also sort of a second-string literary talent–his work has been out of print for decades. Nearing the end of his life, he is approached by a young graduate student named Heather Wolfe, who adores his first two novels and wants to write her master’s thesis on him. Leonard hopes this will revive interest in his novels, and is also flattered to have the attention of a young and attractive woman. But this is not a May-December romance. Their relationship is more complicated than that. Leonard may be attracted to Heather, but he’s also a little terrified of her, the way she threatens his dignity and makes him painfully aware of how old he is. Heather is entranced by Leonard as a writer, but finds being in his physical presence inevitably disappointing. “When she read his work, it as as if he poured his soul directly into hers, and they mixed. Now there were bodies in the way.”
Also in the mix is Ariel, Leonard’s thirty-nine-year-old daughter, who does not read novels at all and worships Oprah, but is still as interesting and insightful as anyone else in the novel; and Casey, Ariel’s activist boyfriend (he’s a minor character, but he provides one of my very favorite moments). This is a beautiful, well-written, complicated book, that tackles big subject like old age and mortality and the meaning of literature, yet still manages to be a fast-paced and unpretentious read. I think you know if this sort of story appeals to you, and I hope you will seek it out if it does. As I mentioned, you’ll find plenty of glowing reviews online.
I’d like to point out here that my favorite thing about this book is what it has to say about the experience of being a reader. Heather views Leonard’s first two novels as works of genius; reading them was a formative event in her life. In her thesis, she writes, “They were completely personal, yet completely in the American grain: they were books about people breaking away from their fates, making their own lives. They were books about freedom.” She’s far less effusive about his last two novels, which she refers to in her thesis as “honorable failures.” In discussing his third novel, which is an ensemble piece about the experience of living through the 1960s, she writes: “Schiller had deprived himself of his greatest resource: his skill at creating central characters who are willing to pay any price or break any bond in order to claim their freedom.”
Contrast this with Casey, who describes reading Leonard’s first book as follows: “He’d finished it in one sitting–it was pretty light–and getting up he’d tossed it on the table and thought, Four people bothering each other. Who cares?” Late in the novel, in an idle moment, Casey picks up Leonard’s third novel. “It was about the alarms and disorders of the 1960s. He read the first forty-five pages, and found it much more interesting than the one he’d read years ago. That other one, his first or second, was a trite little book about a couple trying to deal with their personal problems during a year in Paris. This later book was messier, but it took on larger subjects; it had more gusts. He read until he felt tired; then he put it back on Ariel’s bookcase, intending to return to it another day.”
I loved this, this little reminder that when it comes to reading, you bring so much of yourself into the experience. Accordingly, your mileage may vary.