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'Available Man' delivers humor with the heartbreak

Grief brings gifts in Hilma Wolitzer's humorous yet heartrending new novel, "An Available Man" -- the tale of Edward Schuyler, a sixtysomething science teacher so distraught over the death of his wife, Bee, that he finds himself ironing her blouses:

"He had thought of it . . as a way of reconnecting with her when she was so irrevocably gone, when he couldn't even will her into his dreams.

"And she did come back in a rush of disordered memories as he stood at the ironing board. But he had no control over what he remembered, sometimes seeing her when they first met, or years later in her flowered chintz chair or in the last days of her life, pausing so long between breaths."

Wolitzer is wonderful here, tapping straight into the sorrow and heightened awareness of deep loss while never losing sight of the way the world simply carries on. In Edward Schuyler's world, this means a string of well-meaning folk who presume Edward needs to put his grief behind him, and pronto.

On the advice of his physician, he attends a bereavement group -- afterward feeling "pretty much the way he had coming in: reluctant and skeptical and, most of all, alone." Yet when his good friends invite him to a dinner party, Edward is fearful: "If they spoke of Bee he believed he would not be able to bear it, and if they didn't, it might be equally terrible."

When the good friends also invite "an available woman," Edward is shocked. His stepchildren have similar thoughts -- only they are bolder. They take out an ad in the personals section of the New York Review of Books:

"SCIENCE GUY. Erudite and kind, balding but handsome. Our widowed dad is the real thing for the right woman. Jersey/Metropolitan New York."

Edward is mortified, and confused.

"In a couple of the other ads, placed by men," he notes, "one declared himself a physician in his forties, a world traveler and a gourmet, and the other a 'retired millionaire.' So why would anyone choose to pursue Science Guy, a man who ironed women's blouses for recreation, an aging, balding middle-school teacher with a basement laboratory, to which he'd often retreated to cry like a baby, or to fantasize about cloning his dead wife from the DNA in the hairs still trapped in the bristles of her brush?"

But the replies pour in (one writer referring to "dating after death") -- and Edward, at first, has no heart for any of this.

Wolitzer does, however, and it is her joining -- of the simple, absurd and profound -- that makes "An Available Man" so likable. This is a book without guile -- and, with the most gentle of plots, a small triumph.

Edward the Science Guy, in his grief, feels like all of us. Bee, his beloved late spouse, is so prevalent in the novel she could be a second protagonist. Her aging mother, Gladys, breaks our hearts when she says, missing her "Beetie" -- "If only I could forget, just a little."

Bee's children -- Julie, Nick and, by extension, Nick's wife Amanda -- hover about Edward, needy in themselves but anxious for him, eager to see him "get on" with his life.

"The main thing was that he didn't feel available," Edward mulls. "The ghost of his marriage still inhabited the house, even if Bee herself was missing. He knew he should have disposed of her clothing by now -- at least he'd given the few valuable pieces of jewelry she'd owned to Amanda and Julie -- But it wasn't just Bee's personal belongings that tugged him backward. All those commonplace domestic artifacts -- dishes, lamps, pillows, books -- were compelling souvenirs of the daily life they'd shared. How could he even think of someone else when he was constantly reminded of what he'd had and lost?"

Edward lives in Englewood, N.J., where he is not far from sanctuaries where he can pursue his love of birding. But -- once he responds to some of the replies to the New York Review of Books ad -- he crosses the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan, bringing places like Central Park and the Museum of Modern Art to life.

When one lonely-hearts responder turns out -- improbably -- to be the woman who (years before he met Bee) had left him at the altar, "An Available Man" falters a bit. But we suspend disbelief and charge on, much as we do when we are required to remember each of the many individuals who cross Edward's path.

And indeed we are rewarded by many of them -- including Bernie and Frances, colleagues at the middle school where he teaches; Olga and Elliot, new friends whose work is the restoration of the Unicorn Tapestries at the MoMA; even the rich boy, Nathaniel, whom Edward tutors two days a week.

During one memorable foray into New York City, Edward meets a woman named Ann at MoMA's controversial 2010 Marina Abramovic exhibit featuring live performers, some of them nude. During another, he gets to see Olga working behind the scenes on the Unicorn Tapestries.

But it is Edward's interior thoughts that bind us to him, a bereft man bravely facing an unplanned future -- always with Bee as "the invisible chaperone."

There is a lovely moment when Edward considers this hard time one of "unlearning" -- all the while watching rain wash away the ink of a student's composition.

This is Wolitzer's fine-tuning, a gift from her keen sense of a world that can, in the blink of an eye, wrench any sense of security or control from us.

In the end, we find we have taken a moving, often funny voyage with ourselves. As Edward puts it:

"He had experienced episodes of such uncommon bliss, they seemed ordained rather than random, and periods of darkness and sorrow that held their own mysteries. Bee was truly gone, having moved farther and farther from the center, and then the periphery, of Edward's life into pure memory."

The universe, Edward concludes "had been holding out a gift all along, but he was required to accept it."

Wolitzer's point from the beginning, and we take this to heart, closing "An Available Man" with a deep sigh of satisfaction.

Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.

An Available Man

By Hilma Wolitzer

Ballantine

285 pages, $25