The Mortality of Male Mirror-Gazing

020608 begley web The Mortality of Male Mirror GazingTHE THING ABOUT LIFE IS THAT ONE DAY YOU’LL BE DEAD
By David Shields
Alfred A. Knopf, 225 pages, $23.95

Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. “Stop!” cried the groaning old man at last, “Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.” — Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans (1925)

A book marked by naked Oedipal conflict, a book stuffed with quotations from great writers, ought to have Stein’s beauty stashed somewhere between the covers, and though I waited for it all the way through The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, I came away disappointed. I wouldn’t say the omission ruined the book for me (it deals in more pressing disappointments, like mortality and the alternative: old age), but I did feel a little cheated. I mean, if David Shields insists on making me watch while he buries his 97-year-old dad in “a shower of death data,” couldn’t he at least throw in my favorite line?

An unusual miscellany—part memoir, part anatomy lesson, part grab bag of wise maxims—The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead is far more entertaining than its title suggests. For one thing, Mr. Shields begins at the beginning (“A fetus doesn’t sit passively in its mother’s womb and wait to be fed. Its placenta aggressively sprouts blood vessels that invade its mother’s tissues to extract nutrients”), and a barrage of facts and statistics about the bodies of babies, children and adolescents is generally cheerier than the inevitable sequel: applied gerontology.

More importantly, Mr. Shields writes with neatly harnessed energy and good-humored confidence; he writes as though he were having fun. And a lucky thing, too, because he quotes others often and brilliantly: If your own prose is as drab as sackcloth, better to avoid decorating it with imported frills. Mr. Shields often samples three or four writers one after another: “Nietzsche: ‘There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.’ Wittgenstein said, ‘Our only certainty is to act with the body.’ Martha Graham: ‘The body never lies.’”

He takes the same percussive approach to factual information—and then swerves suddenly into a more lyrical mode, colored, sometimes, by personal experience: “During high school, girls’ bone development is 2 years ahead of boys. Young girls surpass boys in height and weight and they frequently remain taller until boys enter the adolescent growth spurt that accompanies pubescence. Maximum skeletal development occurs at 16 for most girls and 19 for most boys; dating between classmates in high school is by definition a hormonal mismatch and a farce.”

You won’t be surprised to hear that Mr. Shields, a 51-year-old novelist who teaches at the University of Washington in Seattle, is a little preoccupied with his corporeal self. Though he produces a fabulously repulsive aria on the subject of his own teenage acne, and he drags us along to meet the physical therapist charged with kneading his chronically painful back, he’s too smart and curious about life (and death) to bore us with health bulletins or mirror-gazing. All the same, certain casual asides give the impression of a man continually palpating himself.

Though neither of them is overweight, he and his wife “stage monthly dieting competitions.” He tells us how he’s coped with going bald: “Several years ago, I stumbled upon the shaved-head-and-goatee approach, which I must say I like.” And then there’s his sweet tooth: “I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t do drugs. I do sugar, in massive doses.” (He also does Paxil, 10 mg. daily, for backache.)

 

DAVID SHIELDS’ OVERRIDING preoccupation is not actually with himself. It’s with his father, Milt (born Milton Shildcrout in Brooklyn in 1910), who shows no intention of dying—ever. Milt lives in a retirement community that the residents think of as an Olympic training camp—they’re “tough old birds” at play, furiously warding off fate. He’s the kind who has a heart attack playing tennis at age 86—and is back on the court three weeks later.

“Accept death” is David’s message to the paternal unit. “Accept life” is Milt’s mute reply. Funny how the indefatigable father (the son can’t help referring to him as the “Energizer Bunny”) is the sadder figure, a “survival machine” who struggles on blindly, solely for the sake of survival.

But the old guy is not immortal, as Mr. Shields doggedly insists. In the last chapters, he hammers away with the blunt bad news. It’s a touch sadistic—not gleeful, exactly, but punitive all the same. “[B]y the time you’re in your 80’s, not only has your ability to smell declined significantly but you yourself no longer even have a distinctive odor. You can stop using deodorants. You’re vanishing.”

I suggest you do what we all do when faced with the facts about old age and death: Look the other way.

Concentrate on David Shields’ writing: “The indoor pool is the wetland of the maimed—home to those bearing canes, knee braces, neck braces.” Concentrate on the deathless lines he’s borrowed: “And so from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe / And then from hour to hour, we rot and rot.” (That’s Jaques, in the immortal bard’s As You Like It.)

 

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer. He can be reached at books@observer.com.