By Joshua Henkin
For a certain species of novel, only a self-identified New Yorker is truly the beshert reader. Any book, of course, may be read from Nome to Far Tortuga, but these novels reserve their deepest layers of splendor for someone most likely to be turning its pages on the 1 train, or over elephant ears at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, or at least remembering those very pleasures from far afield. I have always had a special fondness for these books, which have reliably come from writers like Cathleen Schine and Cheryl Mendelson (whose wonderful trilogy of Columbia University-adjacent novels begins with one also titled “Morningside Heights”), and I’m pleased to usher Joshua Henkin’s most recent book into this small but cherished enclosure. His story of a brilliant Shakespearean and his wife — once his student — radiates a tenderness for the city that we, his intended readers, can best appreciate — perhaps now most of all, as we ask our city to return to us.
Spence Robin is the youngest Columbia professor ever to achieve tenure in the English department. He’s a Mellon, Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow whose books have hit the best-seller list of this very periodical. So when he is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, his wife, Pru, can only bargain with her husband’s doctors. “Do you know what an exceptional man he is?” she pleads, but she is too acute herself not to take in the seismic implications of what she’s being told.
Spence is the kind of guy who prefers the company of his immediate family to all others. (When Pru attempts to celebrate his MacArthur with a surprise party, Spence is so disgruntled that she is eventually forced to apologize.) But declining the collegiality of his academic colleagues, in particular, will leave him especially vulnerable as he becomes less and less able to fulfill his academic responsibilities, even with a crew of grad students willing to do the heavy lifting. On the day Pru is asked to bring her husband home from the department bathroom, where he has had an accident and is refusing to leave, she feels the full impact of their isolation in the community, and the weight of her own life choices.
A graduate of one of Yale’s first coeducational classes, Pru has left her own academic track for motherhood, amateur theatricals and a dull job in university fund-raising. She may joke with her friends about her terminal “M-R-S” degree, but being without meaningful work of her own is a further destabilization at the precipice of Spence’s degenerative disease.
As Spence’s Alzheimer’s progresses, many people leave the constellation of the Robins’ marriage, but a few enter or return, notably a prickly but stalwart Jamaican caretaker and her chess-playing hemophiliac son, whose life goal is to cure hemophilia so that he can get a tattoo, and Arlo, Spence’s son from a brief and unhappy early marriage. Arlo’s childhood involved being dragged around the country by his monstrously selfish mother (a tragically ungifted midwife at times, a light-fingered bakery employee at others), his dyslexia unnoted and his education ignored. An adolescent attempt to live with his father, stepmother, and half sister, Sarah (now a medical student), was not a success either, but in adulthood this lost lamb has at least found a flock of like-minded souls (they work at a place called Yahoo, out in California).
Still, Spence’s son cannot precisely rejoin the family, even under the circumstances; he can only manage to turn up unexpectedly and leave before anyone notices he’s gone, surprising Sarah on her college campus or offering access to an experimental Alzheimer’s drug, only to retreat. Arlo is too much like his father to finally connect, but watching the two of them try — again and again — provides some of the novel’s many grace notes.
Henkin’s portrayal of Spence and Pru’s academic and careful marriage unfolds from the physical connection of a professor-grad student courtship (no hand-holding permitted above 59th Street, in case someone from the English department happened to cross paths with them; then, as the affair deepens, no hand-holding above, progressively, 72nd, 96th and 110th Streets) to Spence’s gradual departure from his own body, leaving behind something “laid out like a piece of veal.” Henkin is a fine writer with a wry fondness for his characters, but like any New Yorker he knows how to keep a safe distance. The specific letting-go that all New Yorkers must master if we don’t wish to be crippled by nostalgia — especially now, if we do hope to see our city’s resurgence — is particularly nuanced when a city neighborhood is also a college town, but Henkin more than meets this challenge.
Pru, walking the deeply familiar streets alone, acknowledges the ghosts lurking behind the storefronts, both the neighborhood’s and her own: “Past Koronet Pizza she went; past Famiglia, past the West End Bar, though it, too, was long gone now. Past the old chocolate store, which had been there so long it might have been formed from the primordial muck. And, finally, the corner of 116th Street, where Chock Full o’ Nuts used to be. It was the Chinese place now, where the college kids went for takeout.” When I moved home to my ancestral isle of Manhattan, eight years ago, I lived a stone’s throw from that corner. By then, Chock Full o’ Nuts was long gone, but the Chinese place — Ollie’s — was in full swing. Only it’s a Shake Shack now. And so it goes.