I must begin towards the end.
The epigraph of Larry Mathews’ novel “An Exile’s Perfect Letter” (Breakwater Books) is a scrap of a Leonard Cohen poem.
Leonard Cohen. Hold the thought.
Protagonist Hugh Norman, a 62-year-old English professor living in St. John’s, mentions that he has recently visited a urologist to have his prostate examined.
“It’s very large. Right at the end of the Bell curve. Sooner or later we’ll have to do a TURP,” said Hugh’s urologist.
Hugh learns that the procedure — TURP — is a transurethral resection of the prostate. This invasive — friggin’ painful, no doubt — route to the prostate sounds “like medieval torture. Or maybe something the CIA would come up with.”
Just imagine any man, perhaps near the end of his prime, old enough to be suffering from Hugh’s condition, (benign prostatic hyperplasia — makes you squirm, eh b’ys?) lying prone prepped for a TURP …
… with Leonard Cohen lyrics droning in his noggin — lyrics reminding him that his friends have gone, that what remains of his hair is grey, and worst of all, he aches in the parts of his body where he used to play.
An aside. May you never need a TURP.
Okay. Back to the beginning.
Hugh Norman, a few years away from retirement, is spinning his wheels, not caring doodly-squat about departmental in-fighting and squabbles.
He’s indifferent to a colleague’s interest in writing a treatise … dissertation … whatever it’s called, about the importance of postscripts, “hitherto disregarded by conventional scholarship, (yet) can say much about civilization.”
For frig sake, after retirement Hugh will be living in the postscript of his own life.
Hugh learns that an old friend has died up on the Mainland and that got him thinking about … well, about how brief postscripts can be, I s’pose. He is surprised when he realizes he’s “spilled the beans about Cliff’s death and the unsettling effect it’s had on (him).”
Here’s a cheery, pick-you-up-on-a-foggy-day thought from Hugh: “I’m getting ready to die. Not from any immediate cause but just in general beginning to lose interest in the world, to distance myself from the details of life as I’ve known it.”
Feeling so, where does Hugh go for a holiday weekend?
Nothing wrong with that, eh b’ys? St. Pierre is a lovely place to visit. Many of us have gone there.
Fifty years ago, as part of a group, I sailed there dosed to the eyeballs with Gravol and praying for our trip’s postscript.
What’s the pièce de résistance when one visits the French island?
Hugh and his partner Maureen don’t miss this highlight with its “European-style, everything above ground, row upon row of whited sepulchres.”
Maybe a cemetery — any cemetery — isn’t the best attraction for a man “getting mildly obsessed with (his) own death.”
Shortly after his return from St. Pierre, Hugh leaves the Fluvarium’s parking lot and takes a constitutional dodge around Long Pond. Near the end of his walk he steps off the beaten path and discovers a corpse sprawled face-down in the go-widdy.
Enter Gene Brazil, Constabulary cop, who questions Hugh regarding his discovery of the dead body. Brazil’s manner of interrogation intimidates Hugh, despite his innocence. Even Brazil’s penchant for using the colloquial Wah? “to establish verbal dominance” alarms Hugh.
Hugh’s disconcertion isn’t helped when his ex-son-in-law says, “It’s a bit worrying, isn’t it, given the Constabulary’s well-deserved reputation for ineptitude in murder investigations.”
Hugh is eventually relieved when Brazil indicates that he does not suspect Hugh of murder but that he wants him to testify in court. Hugh relaxes and thinks — Phew! —, “It wasn’t me after all.”
An Exile’s Perfect Letter has a gem-dandy opening sentence. It makes a statement few of us are likely to utter: “I think I may be in love with my dentist.”
Hugh has a new dentist because his previous dentist has committed suicide. Dr. Kirsch is a young woman who informs Hugh that a crack in one of his teeth probably happened eons ago.
Eons ago! Hard phrase for a man contemplating the postscript of his life, eh b’ys? Especially when delivered by someone who is likely younger than Hugh’s first adult tooth.
Here’s a chuckle. Back home from the dentist, Hugh — tongue in tooth, p’raps — says to Maureen, “By the way, my new dentist loves my gums. They make her happy.”
I like this novel. It made me happy. As an antiquated English teacher from a previous life, I can relate to Hugh. If not with his feelings towards his dentist, certainly with his dread of a possible TURP.
Thank you for reading.
— Harold Walters lives in Dunville, Newfoundland, doing his damnedest to live Happily Ever After. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org