'How Little I have Known You'
For several years, a diverse group of friends gather to share Christmas dinner—academics, artists, physicians, couples and widows. In previous years, dinner talk revolved around toy party favors and small talk about family and health. This year it becomes a spontaneous and sometimes explosive confession of ideas and secrets of lives little known.
The Diners, Stephen Fox’s latest novel, takes us to a Christmas dinner where nine long-time friends gather in an unnamed community in northern California. This is the seventh year the clan has met at the home of Betty Crown, a widow, and a teacher of philosophy. At the beginning, Tom Whelan, a history teacher, is not enthusiastic about yet another Christmas dinner at Betty’s. But he and his wife Sarah, another philosophy teacher, pack up their shrimp dish, grab their bottle of wine and set off. In addition to the Whelans and Betty Crown, there are two other couples and two additional women at the dinner. All the characters are in their seventies or older, and other than a retired medical doctor and his artist wife, the guests are, or were, university teachers. Though they share race, age and education, the diners come from interesting and diverse backgrounds that are revealed as we proceed through the story.
There is an element of jokey tension, particularly among the three men, but basically the novel details the conversation that takes place during the course of the evening. As one might suspect, the banter involves subjects related both to the characters’ professions and their advanced years. One subject, for example, is dementia. We learn that Betty’s late husband, an attorney, suffered from it though no one in the group apparently realized it, and we get an “academic” discussion of the types and causes of the mental decline we call dementia.
Fox employs an interesting approach to fiction. He blends the typical techniques of scene description, action, character development and conversation with factual, historical and political exposition. Subjects other than dementia, include teaching, baseball history, the environment, racism, service in, and opposition to, the Vietnam war. Before the evening is over, the historian Tom Whelan prophecies a dystopian future for the United States, and in the poignant final chapter we learn how in the year following the dinner, age and circumstance bring great changes to the lives of each of the nine characters. I very much enjoyed the novel, perhaps because I so closely share the age and history of the characters. Anyone who remembers Sal “The Barber” Maglie and the ship Calypso, will enjoy being a guest at Betty Crown’s Christmas party. — Doug Ingold, whose latest novel is Rosyland
FROM THE BOOK: “He’d forgotten how many years they’d gone to Betty’s for Christmas dinner. Not that knowing was all that important. Mostly just curiosity. He’d recently heard someone say on MSNBC—never on Fox News, which he never watched, or he’d read it in the Times—The New York Times, to which he subscribed—that trying to remember something would keep the brain sharp. He did admit, however, that whatever advantage to his brain there might be, the simple act of wondering indicated a faltering interest in dining at Betty’s. Nor would the woman finishing her makeup in the bathroom remember. He wondered if the woman in the bathroom finishing her makeup also had doubts. Probably both had allowed the dinner to slip, without objection, into the category of ‘custom.’ If he gave it any thought, ‘custom’ had come to mean ‘duty’ with only a remote possibility of pleasure ...”
It was late on Christmas Day, about 1600, light giving way to one of the darkest nights of the year in northern California with no prospect of a full or even half-moon; the forecast called for rain.
The disappearance of light and the presence of rain could be significant to some gathering at Betty’s, particularly if they suffered from SAD—Seasonal Affective Disorder. Sad to say, but not even Christmas could provide relief from SAD.
The principal symptoms of SAD (the acronym fits) were fatigue, depression, hopelessness and social withdrawal. The suggested treatment included light therapy (not useful tonight), talk therapy (useful tonight) and unspecified medications: some, Schedule I, likely; others, Schedule III, perhaps.
The symptoms just listed suggest it would not be unreasonable to assume some of Betty’s prospective guests suffered from SAD. For instance, might the disorder account for the reluctance of certain people to attend tonight’s dinner? Taken a step further, would a snoop be likely to find some ‘unspecified medications’ in the bathroom medicine cabinet at the home of ‘wild Gulf Coast shrimp and Pinot’?
It took years for Tom Whelan discover how much Catholics celebrated bloodshed and death. He hadn’t found a reason to give much thought to this central reality—he believed it to be central—of the Church. Some might find this puzzling for a professional historian. What changed him? It started with a young Roman citizen named Tarcisius and a book: Angela’s Ashes.
Little is known of Tarcisius beyond his martyrdom in the 3rd century. According to one version of the legend that developed later, Tarcisius was a young boy during one of the fierce 3rd century Roman persecutions. Entrusted with the task of bringing the Eucharist to condemned Christians in prison, he encountered an angry and resentful mob whose purpose was to stop delivery. In the end, he preferred death at their hands rather than surrender the Blessed Sacrament he carried.
Frank McCourt’s 1996 autobiography, Angela’s Ashes, focused Tom’s revelation about Catholic blood and death like nothing else, certainly beyond Tarcisius. Catholics, McCourt said his elders told him, should aspire to be like Tarcisius. It seemed to the lad that his father, the schoolmaster or the priest constantly promised (insisted?) young Frank happily die for something.
McCourt reported that his amiable but shiftless father would stumble home drunk after a night on the town, roust his young children out of bed and make them promise that they would be willing to “die for Ireland.” Of course, in true Christianity, which few rarely practice, sacrifice is what one does. A duty. Jesus Christ died for your sins. Ergo, be ‘Christ-like.’ Young Whelan concluded, although he had no intention of following such a prescription, that a good Catholic must sacrifice him or herself for the faith or, in McCourt’s circumstance, for Ireland. In any event, the bloodier the sacrifice the lovelier.
McCourt’s tales of sacrifice fascinated Tom Whelan. The young Irishman’s schoolmasters regularly made him promise to “die for the faith if called upon.” In McCourt’s own words, “The master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland, and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live.”
McCourt wryly wondered why it always had to be about “dying for the faith” and why no one ever asked him to “go swimming for the faith” or to “eat candy for the faith.” If Catholics played their cards right, which parents, priests and teachers drummed into young McCourt, an angry mob might beat him to death (like Tarcisius), making him a martyr. A better outcome, decided young Whelan, would be the ‘sacrifice’ of one’s enemies instead.