Subtle Bodies

By Norman Rush

(Knopf Doubleday /Vintage International, $15, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

Norman Rush, an author based in New York state,  is best known for “Whites,” a collection of stories, and two hefty novels: “ Mating” and “Mortals.” All were set in Botswana, the African country where Rush and his wife, Elsa, were Peace Corps directors from 1978 to 1983. “Mating” won a National Book Award for fiction, and you may have read some of Rush’s stories in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Best American Short Stories. “Subtle Bodies,” however, is a shorter work, set in the Catskills mountains of New York State, a bit of a departure for Rush, who is now 81.

What is this book about?

It’s a “Big Chill” kind of plot, in which Douglas, a charismatic member of a once-tightly knit group of friends, expires, and the rest gather, after having been apart for many years, to pay their respects and reminisce, even as Douglas’s widow tries to turn the event into what feels like a theatrical extravaganza. Of course, it is not always a good idea to stir up old memories and force old friends into new alliances. Should old acquaintance be forgot? Sometimes, yes. The book centers on Ned and his much younger wife Nina, who are trying to get pregnant and who tell the story. Many reviewers say Nina, a smart and sardonic narrator, is the best part of the book.

Why you’ll like it:

If you are a Baby Boomer, and really, who isn’t, you will find plenty to like here. Known for its relentless navel-gazing and its pig-in-the-python prominence in American demographics, this is the dominant group in numbers, wealth and influence, and “Subtle Bodies” delineates them well. Throw in Rush’s talents at writing coruscating humor and ability to create memorable female characters, and you have a winning combination.

What others are saying:

In a starred review, Kirkus says: “Rush’s third novel is an outlier–a slim book not set in Botswana–but his concerns with our carnal and intellectual lives remain pleasurably, provocatively intact. The modern classic Mating (1991) and its 2003 follow-up, Mortals, were hothouse experiments in human behavior: Take a bright couple, drop them in a foreign milieu, and watch their primal instincts slowly emerge. This book does much the same thing, though it’s set in Rush’s native United States. At its center is Ned, a middle-aged activist who has hastened to the castle-like home of his college friend Douglas, who has died in a riding-mower accident. Following close behind is his wife, Nina, who is outraged at Ned for leaving just as she reaches the peak in her fertility cycle; she wants to conceive. Its life-and-death themes settled fast, the novel largely explores the personalities of Ned and three other friends of Douglas who have arrived for the memorial. Douglas was a lifelong provocateur, and in college, this clan was hellbent on undoing social norms, but reconvened, they largely have memories of old bons mots and a widow who’s trying to stage-manage the memorial to the last utterance. The setting is funereal, and Rush dwells much on the futility of warring against our natures, yet this book abounds in wit, particularly in its exploration of Ned and Nina’s marriage; alternating between their perspectives, Rush ping-pongs their thoughts about lust, love and accomplishment. The brevity of the story highlights its contrived setup–the everybody-stuck-in-the-castle arrangement has an unintentional whiff of an Agatha Christie mystery–and a subplot involving Douglas’ troubled teen son is left frustratingly unresolved. But this is a weaker novel only in comparison to Rush’s earlier triumphs. His skill at revealing our interior lives is undiminished. Easier to lug around than its predecessors but with plenty of heft regardless.”

Says Library Journal: “Old friends reunite at a funeral in Rush’s latest work, a basic plot here given lighthearted treatment. Chief among the group is Ned, coming from California to the East Coast and trailed by his wife, Nina, who mildly resents having been left behind but is mainly interested in continuing their attempts to conceive a child. The deceased is Douglas, a charismatic figure around whom the group coalesced at college in the 1970s, united by belief mostly in their superior intelligence but also encompassing vague political and theatrical forces. Douglas had resided on an estate in upstate New York, where, in addition to friends, various representatives of the international media appear to capture the elegiac ceremonies. Nina arrives and immediately immerses herself in the lives of Ned’s gang as the novel unfolds in a humorous and unfunereal fashion, played out against the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Verdict This novel has the verbal play and digressions one might expect from Rush . . . but is briefer and more accessible. Readers will be immediately drawn into the acutely rendered world swirling around Ned and Nina.”

Says Bookforum: Though Subtle Bodies tunnels in various directions, including toward a meditation on the enigma of male friendship, here again the marital banner flies strong from the novel’s first pages, its first syllables. In Subtle Bodies, as in so much of his work, confronting the world returns Rush to his central question: What matters, in the end? That we do what we can, is the author’s refrain. Even if all we can do— all any two people can do—is form a country of our own, whose flag is love.”

When is it available?

Rush to the Downtown Hartford Public Library to borrow this one.

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