A man and his wife, Americans, go to England to visit sites associated with the writer Thomas Hardy; while there, the man sees Hardy in an apparition: “Something I missed,” the phantom whispers.
The man, like the author of this novel, is named Floyd. Like the author, too, the character Floyd has a wife, a grown daughter, and a cognitive deficiency—the result of a virus that targeted his brain a few decades earlier. In his new book, Skloot (Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir, 2014, etc.) has tossed together a salad of fictionalized memoir, Hardy biography, and travelogue. Floyd takes off after the Hardy phantom. It turns out this isn’t Floyd’s first “Visitation” (his term); in the past, he’s been “Visited” by Freud, Bach, and Nabokov, among others. Somehow, though, this Visit is different, so Floyd sets up an impromptu investigation. What, exactly, is that “something” that Hardy missed? Something to do with his love life, surely. As Floyd and his wife, Beverly, visit Hardy’s home, birthplace, and other landmarks, they reflect on his tumultuous relationships, gossiping with local Hardy aficionados as they go. Gradually, the reason for Floyd’s ongoing Hardy obsession becomes clear: it turns out that he’s grieving the recent death of his mentor, a college professor who first turned him on to Hardy’s work and, at the same time, inspired Floyd to find his own voice as a writer. But there’s another facet to this search. As Skloot writes, “the chance to make sense of Hardy’s strangeness and struggle gave me a chance to make sense of my own. I was engaged in an ongoing process of learning to live as a brain-damaged man and resist neurological disintegration.” The unfortunate end result is at times sentimental, at other times tedious. The narrative is dragged down by the inclusion of not-entirely-crucial and ultimately uninteresting details: the photos Floyd and Beverly snap, the naps they take in the afternoons, and so on. The passages on Hardy’s life and work veer into blatant speculation, a shaky foundation that doesn’t support the conclusions Skloot draws.
A sporadically insightful, intermittently entertaining blend of memoir, literary history, and fabulist speculation.