One of our neighbors, a retired union organizer who happens to be 101 years old, has a son who goes by the name Sparrow, and at a party in our building, a few months ago—in the before time, back when there were parties—Sparrow, who is a poet, gave me a copy of his new novel, Abraham.
Reading it was effortless, like eating my way through a bag of candy. (That’s the highest compliment one can pay a work of literature now, isn’t it—comparing it to something bad for you.) Abraham has absolutely no plot. The reader is told at the outset that the book is the diary of a chiropractor in upstate New York with an unmotivatedly eccentric way of recording the date and time. But as little as possible is made of this premise. To the best of my recollection, the chiropractor never mentions his chiropractice, and although he has a wife and a four-year-old son, they are rarely more than conceptual, serving mostly to represent the idea of a wife and the idea of a son. The only real, full presence is the diarist’s voice, which is to say Sparrow’s—a witty innocent, a deadpan enthusiast—and this is enough. It’s the voice of a dedicated talker, of someone who knows almost too well how to entertain himself with talk.
He happens to be obsessed with Abraham Lincoln. He reads whatever he comes across that mentions Lincoln: biographies, children’s books, websites, ads for TV shows, the Time magazine Civil War issue. (I wondered, once or twice, whether I might have inadvertently contributed to this indiscriminate mix, because, as a reviewer who can’t read everything he’s sent, I leave galleys of American history books in the lobby of our building every so often. Maybe Sparrow picked one up while visiting his parents?) And he takes everything he reads with the same seriousness, which is to say, with an indifference to winnowing that is inimical to the methods and ends of scholarly history and biography—impishly, deliberately indifferent, one suspects, and no less entertaining for that. I, for one, don’t think it’s likely that Lincoln had homosexual experiences or suffered from clinical depression, but homosexuality and depression are common elements these days in popular representations of Lincoln, and though Sparrow’s diarist registers some doubts when he first encounters them, he soon loses track of his doubts, and wanders into, for example, speculation about John Wilkes Booth and Lincoln having been lovers. Which would be maddening if one were reading Abraham as history. But it’s not—not any more than it’s a novel. I think its genre is written talk. It reminds me of Boswell’s account of Johnson. Or maybe a Donald Barthelme spoof of Boswell’s account of Johnson. Or maybe it’s like Enter Isabel, the epistolary dialogue about Melville that Clare L. Spark had with the novelist Paul Metcalf, who was Melville’s great-grandson.
There’s lovely writing in Abraham. This simile, for example, took my breath away:
A tree fell over in the woods behind my house in March, but its buds are opening anyway, just like a drunk who collapses onto the floor of a barroom and continues his conversation, unaware that he’s horizontal.
As did this one:
I thought the chicory was all gone, but Grange [the narrator’s son] and I found two plants today, gleaming like the hard blue eyes of an 82-year-old sculptor.
And there are sharp ideas, like this insight: “One reason wars are periodic is that warmongers must wait a generation for memories of the last slaughter to fade.” Or the suggestion that “the poor are often more erudite than the rich” because “the affluent can afford the latest mediocre novels—in hardcover!—while the poor must content themselves with Milton, Shakespeare, Cervantes,” in used paperbacks.
It’s tempting just to keep quoting. But I’ll quote just one more, a diary entry of the chiropractor’s that is more or less an apologia, I think, for what Sparrow is up to:
Rereading this journal, I am embarrassed how unserious it is: summaries of comic books, facts from the New York Times Book Review, amateur sonnets.
But history is a collection of fragments. The jumble in an antique shop—paintings without titles, greenish vases, aging photographs, a book with a half-illegible name inscribed, slightly moldy quilts—that’s history, before it’s been domesticated by historians.