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A Dangerous Age

Ellen Gilchrist

A Novel

(Algonquin)

A Dangerous Age, Gilchrist’s first book in a decade, would more aptly be titled A Terrible Mess, in which Gilchrist, via the Hand family, takes on the Iraq war.  The Hands—cousins Winifred, Louise, Tallulah, Susan, and Olivia—are part of sprawling, multigenerational clan featured in numerous earlier Gilchrist books, most notably The Anna Papers, the Anna in question being the cousins’ aunt. Anna Hand was a famous writer who committed suicide, and both her work and death are mentioned numerous times throughout the text. For those who haven’t read the previous book, this only adds a muddled layer to an already troubled work.


The book opens with Winifred’s fiancé, Charles Kane, dying in the World Trade Center. The elaborately planned wedding is instead a memorial service, spurring Charles’ twin cousins, Carl and Brian, to enlist in the Marines. Brian arrives in Iraq only to get his chin blown off; he’s sent home to Walter Reed Hospital, leading Winifred to ask Louise, “[W]hat I want to know is why we can’t make tanks that withstand mines if we are going to ride all the good-looking, strong young men around in them.”


Following this, the Hand women stay in close touch, emailing, cell-phoning, conversing endlessly about sex, their jobs, which they might or might not quit, the war, and how awful it is that all those handsome men have to go fight. Rather than advance the plot, the net effect is much chatter about nothing. Soon, Winifred and Louise decide to move to D.C. to be near Brian. When Carl literally appears on Louise’s doorstep, the two immediately fall into bed, marrying within days. Never mind that Carl is 24, Louise 36, and they are strangers. Never mind that Carl says things like:


“I’m the dominant twin. Brian is my child and my brother. He’s me and now I’m going back up there and spending the night beside his bed. And then I’m going over there where they did this to him and count coup. Can you deal with all of that?”


My day job as a university administrator affords me extensive daily contact with men Carl’s age. They never, ever speak that way. Nor can I accept Gilchrist’s glowing evocation of Walter Reed Hospital—“They’ve got the best doctors in the world”—and Brian’s state-of-the-art aftercare. Evidently Gilchrist missed the sickening exposés of conditions at Walter Reed, or chose to overlook them. Either way, the book’s credibility is completely undermined before page 40. Any novelist writing about current events risks angering her readers. But to take on Iraq, in all its ugly complexities, and make a confusing hash of it is worse, particularly in this case. Gilchrist is a National Book Award winner with 21 books under her belt. What was she thinking? 


The problems continue. From Louise’s shotgun marriage we leap abruptly to Olivia, the workaholic editor of the Tulsa World newspaper. Her editorials on the war offer some of the novel’s most bewildering reading. While Gilchrist makes Olivia her mouthpiece for lists of the dead, hideous injuries, and the general ugliness of battle, Olivia is also a proud patriot, particularly after her remarriage to ex-husband Bobby Tree. When Bobby is called up from the Marine reserves to fly drones in Nevada, Olivia writes the Pentagon a rambling letter:


“I am the editor of the Tulsa World ... my husband is a staff sergeant in the Marine reserves ... My resume is enclosed ... I would like to volunteer for duty in any post near Nellis Air Force Base ... my real skills ... would be as a publicist or lobbyist for the predator and other drone aircraft systems ...”


Her letter goes on to mention her pregnancy won’t be a problem because her aunt, a Cherokee fluent in six languages (whose resume is also enclosed, though the woman has no day job), will come along to help out. Of course, “My main aim ... is to live nearer my husband during this time.”


I am certain the Pentagon receives nutball letters daily, but not from newspaper editors. When the Pentagon doesn’t respond, Olivia stays at the paper, penning pro-war editorials until pregnancy complications force her on bed rest. At this point we’re given some respite in the form of Olivia’s Cherokee relatives. Grandparents Little Sun and Crow are beacons of sanity among the weirdness, sending their daughter Mary Lily to care for Olivia. There is some good writing here about the wisdom of age and the importance of stewardship, both of the land and the young, but it isn’t enough to glue Dangerous together. 


Readers are left wondering whether Gilchrist favors the war or not; certainly she is stylist enough to deliberately fashion indecisive characters pointing up the gray areas of human conflict. But this indecision ultimately frustrates, making A Dangerous Age a disappointing book from a writer capable of far better.

Rating:

Diane Leach has a Master's Degree in English Literature from Humboldt State University. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New Mobility, and The Collagist. She can be reached at dianesleach@gmail.com.


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28 May 2014
With quick wit and clean prose, Ellen Gilchrist reminds us of the human race's ability to face life's curveballs with persistence and grace.
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