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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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The most I saw of Bob and Janice was in Key West. Not that we didn’t get invited elsewhere and stupidly not find time to go. Not that we didn’t toss around future plans. You might have thought these were laid-back people, dressed in summery shirts, wearing sandals. But no: they liked the climate, the people, the way they could live on the island. Their talk was not, however, about the water in the swimming pool. Key West has a way of drawing in people who’ve been elsewhere and plan to keep leaving. I don’t have photographs, but I have these images: Bob and Janice exiting a restaurant, walking across the gravel driveway, holding hands; that way Bob had of looking up and to the side when he was discussing war or politics; the way his eyes would widen before he sputtered into laughter. That said, I was once seated in the middle of Bob and Harry Mathews at an elegant Christmas dinner, the three of us squeezed into a banquette, during which time I felt like my own tennis match, trying to take in first what Harry was saying, then Bob. Finally I disappeared by slipping under the table and walking off. I asked my husband, Lincoln, what they’d been talking about. “An obscure war,” he said. (Lincoln had just offended someone so much, she’d put her hands over her ears and run off. The subject? A disgusting piece of so-called sculpture he’d seen at Art Basel.)
As everyone knows, writers don’t talk to each other about writing. I mean, not their own and not the other person’s. Nevertheless, Bob got through to me what his favorite story of mine was, and he certainly knew my own number one pick: “Helping,” which I always taught my undergraduate literature class. I’m not alone in thinking this is a masterpiece, but you always worry if twenty-one-year-olds will get it. I think they knew from my attitude—as though we’d walked a long way on our knees but now were approaching the altar—that they should read it carefully. I once blasted the music referred to in the story and talked over it. I asked them to read aloud certain dialogue to hear their inflection, promising (as is true) that there was no “right” way to speak it. Robert was so careful with his words, so judicious, so intelligent, so able to suggest the hopefulness underlying many words of despair. He’d acted. I gave them that clue. And he’d memorized parts of Shakespeare. He could sometimes be prodded into speaking the lines, and you’d hear the words anew—as maybe even he did, on the retake. You’d get so transported, talking to him, or listening. And why not, because the state of the world is pretty grim. It was always there, though, on the edge of the pool, up in the tree with the songbird. He lived it and sang it and could have been a real one-man-band, but he was too modest. Sometimes even too tentative. He was a very gentle person. He’d integrated so many discordant realities into his life and made something amazing of them. He sang. The work sang. We got more from him than we had any right to expect.