In Bachner’s debut novel, a retired English teacher’s lifelong regrets spill over into the present.
In 1994, a retired schoolteacher and minor academic named Paul Cormier is dying in his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He’s fearful of spending the end of his life “alone in my sunny apartment with only fear, regret, and guilt for company.” The calm of his hermitic last months is disrupted by Alan Ricks, a senior at the Roosevelt School—Cormier’s place of employment for some four decades—who has been sent to interview him for an oral history project. Ricks’ questions draw out the dying man’s memories; Cormier goes beyond institutional history, exploring every facet of his own life. He recounts his lonely childhood in a small Maine town as the overweight son of a French-Canadian heiress and an absentee socialist father, his double life as a closeted gay private school teacher in the 1940s and ’50s, and his life’s greatest regret regarding the fate of a boy named Nate, whom he knew in his early years of teaching. In the present, Cormier and his interviewer eventually form an intergenerational friendship, with each person filling a void left by a tragedy in the other’s past. The relationship is complicated as Ricks’ life careens off the expected private school track. The narrative moves slowly, and it takes a while for the temporally disparate strands to come together. On the occasion of Nate’s bar mitzvah, his uncle advises him, “If you're going to be a writer, you have to put it all down, even things that seem pointless.” At times, readers may wish that Bachner hadn’t taken this advice himself. At other times, however—such as the moving sections about Cormier’s tumultuous affair with a married writer or about Ricks’ fast-paced adventures in the ’90s downtown club scene—readers will appreciate every word.
A sweet, occasionally thrilling story of an elderly man trying to make sense of his past and a young man trying to make sense of his own future.