Old-fashioned professor rejoices in his marriage. Then he remembers seeing his wife kiss another man 30 years ago. Uh-oh.
Uncas Metcalfe is a 60-ish professor of botany at a college near his hometown, Sparta, in central New York; he’s a fifth generation Spartan. It’s the 1980s; the action, what there is of it, takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Uncas’s wife Margaret, former owner of a nursery school, is in the hospital with a leg injury. Margaret has the people skills; the often oblivious Uncas is known by his family (there are grown kids and grandkids) as Lord Reticent Taciturn. But Uncas sees himself as a steady man who can recognize that quality in others, such as Alex, a young woman new in town; what he hasn’t noticed is that she’s a lesbian. Alex and her girlfriend Hannah have been helping out while Margaret, now back at home, convalesces. Uncas, unmoored since Margaret’s injury, finds himself telling Alex about a long-ago incident in Cambridge, Mass., when Uncas, unseen, observed his wife kissing an old childhood friend in their kitchen. True to form, he had never discussed the matter with Margaret; when he questions her now, she dismisses the kiss as inconsequential, which it clearly was. Realizing an old wound is not enough to sustain a novel, Osborne concocts something else, a confrontation between Uncas and a former student, Carl Benson, whom Uncas has forgotten but who has not forgotten him. Years before, Carl had asked the professor for help in overseeing marijuana therapy for his father, who was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease; Uncas ignored the request. Now Carl is provoking Uncas, stealing his bike and his briefcase. But why, Uncas wonders, has calling him to account “suddenly become imperative”? Good question, never answered.
Uncas acknowledges he is “a terribly small man.” And this is a terribly small first novel.