A man who ages backward in late–19th-century San Francisco recounts his inverted but ultimately rewarding life: a quirky second novel from the author of The Path of Minor Planets (2001).
Born to wealthy San Franciscans in 1871, Max Tivoli is pronounced a “Nisse,” or little Danish gnome, a time-altered creature who starts out as an old man and gradually grows younger until he attains babyhood and death—calculated by his grandmother at 1941. Yet Max grows only physically younger, while his mind reflects his actual years, prompting his family and himself perpetually to pass him off in public as someone he isn’t—like the performing bear at Woodward’s Gardens. Max’s Danish father abruptly vanishes from the house (he’s believed to have been “shanghaied”) when Max is 16, forcing him and his pregnant mother to move from tony Nob Hill to their old house in South Park, where Max (presented as his mother’s brother-in-law) falls hopelessly in love with the 14-year-old daughter of widow Levy, a tenant downstairs. Yet because of Max’s still-elderly appearance, he despairs of winning young Alice’s love, and instead allows the widow to seduce him—though when she discovers his secret, she flees with her daughter: they don’t reappear until Alice and Max are both, harmoniously, in their 30s. In a most ingenious (and Freudian) manner, Alice becomes truly the mutable love of Max’s life, functioning as his first love, then as his wife, and then—shockingly—as his mother in his final preadolescent years. By that time, in 1930, Max knows he has few more lucid days left and begins penning his life story. Artifices indeed proliferate in Greer’s nutty scheme for a novel, but if the reader can persevere beyond the first few convoluted pages—“So many things stand in the way of anyone ever hearing my story”—the delights are many, among them gossamer prose, vivid characterization, and historic snapshots of a fabulous American city.
Old-fashioned narrative fun in a literary hall of mirrors.