MEN WITH DEBTS by Anthony Giardina


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Jack Henna is a Massachusetts insurance man (door-to-door, ""on the debit"") in the 1950s; he has a wife, two young boys, a suburban house, and a soft, moony disposition that sets him apart from his co-workers. For him, ""making a sale was more like putting someone to bed, tucking the covers over him and putting out the light. In a moment of connection, he'd think of his wife and kids, and a gentleness would come over him. The policy he was selling attained the softness and healing warmth of a new flannel blanket he wanted the client to reach out and touch."" On a visit to a new widow (husband a suicide), he finds himself infinitely touched and stirred by the woman, Mrs. Adams--all the more so, oddly, for her distant coldness to him. He returns that day to job and then family, but discontent grows in him; he begins to dream of leaving, going to Mrs. Adams--to her sadness, bitterness, and her hopeless farm, her resentful confused son. He does go finally. Surprisingly, she accepts him--grudgingly--for a single night. Then, however, she asks him to leave, to let her get on with her difficult life. First-novelist Giardina detours for a few fine group scenes here: the insurance office atmosphere, the edgiest imaginable supper with Henna, the widow, and her dazzlingly sulky and hostile son. But, for the most part, this entire novel is balanced on the fragile fulcrum of Henna's extreme sensitivity--a quality that many readers might view, instead, as severe wimpiness. And the gossamer, emotive approach throughout is often too frail and wispy--especially when it's translated into an excess of theatrically impressionistic speechiness. (""I knew a thing now the way it was,"" the widow tells Henna of her first sexual experience, ""and something in me, something hard and awful and something, I'm afraid, Sam never quite forgave me for, could not forgive him for making my life less interesting than i'd imagined it from the window on Riverside Drive, where the feel of a man in a muffler and tweed coat might be like velvet if you can catch his attention, only to sit on that bench and wait for him to notice you. He is a thing of wonders."") Reminiscent of Charles McDade's recent Almost Dark (p. 902), Giardina's novel attempts a difficult art--that of capturing the inviolable privacies of quiet, undramatic people. He succeeds in this only fitfully, but the result is nonetheless a delicate, unusual, promising debut.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1983
Publisher: Knopf