WHERE TO START? Where to begin? That’s the big question looming over all narrative structures, and something we analyzed ceaselessly in graduate school. What is the point of departure for a story? Unless you’re writing a big cradle-to-grave saga—“To begin my life at the beginning of my life”—a story usually commences at a moment well into the life of the central character. As such, from the outset you’re traveling forward with this individual through his tale, yet you are simultaneously discovering, bit by bit, the forces and events that shaped him in the past. As David Henry, my doctoral adviser, was fond of reminding his students in his lectures on literary theory: “All novels are about a crisis and how an individual—or a set of individuals—negotiates said crisis. More than that, when we first meet a character in a narrative, we are dealing with him in the present moment. But he has a back story, just like the rest of us. Whether it’s in real life or on the page, you never understand somebody until you understand their back story.”
David Henry. Maybe that’s a good point of departure. Because the accidental set of circumstances that landed David Henry in my life sent it down a path I would never have thought possible. Then again, we can never predict where a particle will go…
David Henry. Back at the start of the 1970s, when he was a young professor at the university, he’d written a study of the American novel, Toward a New World, that was noted immediately for its accessibility and its critical originality. Around the same time, he also published a novel about growing up in a Minnesota backwater that immediately saw him acclaimed as a modern-day Sherwood Anderson, alive to the contradictions of small-town American life.
“Alive” was the word everyone used about David Henry back then. Toward a New World won the 1972 National Book Award for Nonfiction. His novel had been short listed that same year for the NBA in Fiction (a rare double honor) and was a finalist for the Pulitzer. The photos of him around that time show just why he was such a media star, as he had (to use a line from an Esquire profile of him) “classic square-jawed American good looks and a serious sense of cool: Clark Gable Goes to Harvard.”
He was everywhere back then: appearing on talk shows; writing learned, witty essays for the New York Review of Books; debating right-wing hawks in public forums. What’s more, though he dressed with a certain Lou Reed élan (black T-shirts, black jeans), he never jumped on the radical-chic bandwagon. Yes, he did publicly denounce “the Babbitt-like conformism that so dominates one corner of the American psyche,” but he also wrote articles in defense of America’s cultural complexity. One of them, “Our Necessary Contradictions,” became something of a talking point when published in the Atlantic in 1976, as it was one of the first critical explications of what David called “the two facets of the American psyche that rub up against each other like tectonic plates.” I first discovered this essay while a freshman in college when a friend recommended David Henry’s collection of journalist pieces, Left-Handed Writing. And I was so taken with it that I must have foisted it on half a dozen friends, telling them that it explained, with brilliant clarity, what it meant to be an American who doubted so much about the state of the country today.
So I was in love with David Henry before I was in love with David Henry. When I applied to the doctoral program at Harvard, the essay that accompanied my application talked among other things about how much his approach to American literature and thought had influenced my own nascent academic work, and how the thesis I was hoping to write—“The Infernal Duality: Obedience and Defiance in American Literature”—was so David Henry. Granted, I knew I was taking a risk in letting it be known—even before I had been accepted by Harvard—that I already had a preferred thesis adviser in my sights. But I was so determined to work with him. As I was coming out of Smith summa cum laude with very strong recommendations from my English professors there, I was willing to be assertive.
It worked. I was called down to Cambridge for an interview with the department chairman. At the last minute I was told by his secretary that the interview would be handled by someone else in the department.
And that’s how I found myself face-to-face with David Henry.
The year was 1995. He was now in his early fifties, but still retained the craggy movie-star aura—though I immediately noticed that his eyes were marked by dark crescent moons hinting at a certain sadness within. I knew that he had continued to write essays for publications like Harper’s and the New York Review of Books, though not with such prolific regularity as before. From a piece I read about him in the Boston Globe I also found out that there had been no second novel and that his long-commissioned biography of Melville remained unfinished. But the article did say that, though his profile as a writer and a public intellectual had faded, he was still a hugely respected teacher whose undergraduate classes were always oversubscribed and who was one of the most sought-after doctoral advisers in the university.
I liked him immediately because he saw how hard I was trying to mask my nervousness, and he quickly put me at my ease.
“Now why on earth would you want to go into something as archaic and badly paid as university teaching when you could be out there cashing in on all the material bounty being offered in this, our new Gilded Age?”
“Not everyone wants to be a robber baron,” I said.
David smiled. “‘Robber baron.’ Very Theodore Dreiser.”
“I remember your chapter on Dreiser in The American Novel and a piece you wrote on the seventieth anniversary of the publication of Sister Carrie in the Atlantic.”
“So you said in your application essay. But let me ask you something: do you rate Sister Carrie?”
“More than you do. I do take your point that there is a terrible leadenness to much of Dreiser’s prose. But that’s something he shares with Zola—a need to sledgehammer a point home and a certain psychological primitivism. And yes, I do like the point you make about Dreiser’s prolixity being bound up with the fact that he was one of the first novelists to use a typewriter. But to dismiss Dreiser as—what was the phrase you used?—‘a portentous purveyor of penny dreadfuls’… With respect, you missed the point—and also used a lot of Ps in one sentence.”
As soon as I heard that line come out of my mouth, I thought: What the hell are you saying here? But David wasn’t offended or put off by my directness. On the contrary, he liked it.
“Well, Ms. Howard, it’s good to see that you are anything but a brownnose.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sure I’ve really overstepped the mark.”
“Why think that? I mean, you’re going to be in the doctoral English program at Harvard, which means that you are going to be expected to display a considerable amount of independent thinking. And as I won’t work with anyone who’s a suck-up…”
David didn’t finish the sentence. Instead he just smiled, enjoying the bemused look that had fixed itself on my face.
“Professor, you said: ‘You’re going to be in the doctoral English program at Harvard.’ But my application hasn’t been approved as yet.”
“Take it from me—you’re in.”
“But you do know that I will be applying for financial aid?”
“Yes, I saw that—and I spoke with our department chairman about utilizing a fund we have. It was set up by one of the Rockefellers and is granted to one incoming doctoral candidate every year. Now, I see on your application that your father is a mining executive, based in Chile.”
“Was a mining executive,” I said. “He lost his job around five years ago.”
He nodded, as if to say: So that’s why money is so tight.
I could have added how I could never, ever rely on my father for anything. But I always worried about burdening anybody (even my boyfriend) with the more unpleasant facets of my childhood. And I certainly wasn’t going to start gabbing about them during my interview with David Henry. So I simply said: “My father told his last boss to go have sex with himself. And since he refused to accept any job below that of the president of a company—and was also known as something of a hothead in his industry—his employment prospects dried up. He’s been ‘consulting’ since then but makes hardly enough to keep himself going. So…”
And I’d just revealed more than I intended to. David must have sensed this, as he simply smiled and nodded his head and said, “Well, your winning a full postgraduate scholarship to Harvard will surely please him.”
“I doubt it,” I said quietly.
I was wrong about that. I wrote my dad a letter two months before my graduation from Smith, telling him how much I’d like him to be at the ceremony and also informing him about my all-expenses-paid scholarship to Harvard. Usually it took him around a month to write back to me—but this time a letter arrived within ten days. Clipped to it was a hundred-dollar bill. The letter was twenty-one words long:
I am so proud of you!
Sorry I can’t be at your graduation.
Buy yourself something nice with this.
Within moments of opening it, I was in floods of tears. I had never cried when Dad left us. I had never cried when he had to cancel so many of our planned weekends in the city after he’d relocated down there. I had never cried when he moved to Chile and kept telling me that, next year, he’d fly me down for a few weeks and never got around to it. I had never cried when his response to my straight As at Smith, my election to Phi Beta Kappa—all that damn striving to please him—was silence. And in an attempt to get some sort of recognition from him I wrote that letter. All it did was make me face the looming truth I never wanted to confront: my father always distanced himself from me. Buy yourself something nice. A hundred bucks and a five-line note to assuage his guilt… that is, if he even had any guilt. Yet again, he was brushing me aside—but this time, I couldn’t respond by trying to shrug off his detachment. This time all I could do was cry.
Tom tried to console me. He kept telling me that my father didn’t deserve such a great daughter, that he would come to regret his dismissal of me, that my success undoubtedly unnerved him, because he himself had failed so badly in everything he had ever undertaken.
“Of course he’s going to push you away,” Tom said. “How else is he going to handle your brilliance?”
“Stop flattering me,” I told him.
“You’re resistant to flattery,” he said.
“Because I don’t merit it.”
“No—because you have convinced yourself that your idiot father is right: why should you merit your success?”
But my sadness wasn’t just bound up in my father’s brush-off of me. It was also rooted in the fact that Tom and I were about to part. The terrible thing about this split was, we didn’t want to break up. But I was heading to Harvard and Tom was off to Trinity College Dublin for postgraduate work. Though neither of us wanted to admit it, we knew that once we were separated by the Atlantic, we’d be finished. What made this knowledge even more agonizing was that Tom had been accepted by Harvard to do his master’s in History. But he had decided to take the offer of a place in Dublin—reassuring me that it would only be a year and then he’d join me at Harvard for his doctorate.
“You can come over for Thanksgiving,” he said. “I’ll come back for Christmas, we’ll spend Easter together knocking around Europe… and the year will pass before we both know it.”
I wanted to believe his protestations. Just as I decided that I wouldn’t force his hand or use the sort of emotional blackmail (“If you really loved me, you wouldn’t leave me”) that I had heard my mother use against my father in the years leading up to his departure.
“Of course I don’t want you to go,” I told him after he informed me that he was putting Harvard on hold and heading to Dublin. “Of course I’m not going to stop you.”
That’s when the reassurances began. The more he uttered them, the more I knew he wanted to cut and run. On the day that my dad’s five-line letter arrived—and Tom tried so hard to comfort me—I blurted out the uncomfortable truth: “As soon as you get to Dublin, we’re finished.”
“Don’t be absurd,” he said. “I’ve never intimated that—”
“But it’s going to happen, because—”
“It is not going to happen,” Tom said, getting vehement. “I value you—us—far too much. And I understand exactly why you’re feeling so vulnerable right now, but…”
But what you don’t understand is what I understand: men vanish when threatened.
Well, he did head off to Dublin—and we did promise each other that love would see us through and all the other usual romantic clichés. The rupture happened right before Thanksgiving. He was due to come back to the States, with me then meeting him in Paris for Christmas. Fair play to Tom—he didn’t feed me a lie or keep me dangling while he said that, to unforeseen circumstances, he wouldn’t be landing in Boston on November 21st. Instead he phoned me and came straight out with “I’ve met somebody else.”
I didn’t ask for much in the way of details—I’m no masochist—and he didn’t supply too many, except to say that she was Irish, a medical student at Trinity, and that it was “serious.” When he started saying: “It really did take me completely by surprise,” I just said, “I’m sure it did.”
A long silence followed.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“So am I.”
And that was that. The big central relationship of my life to date was suddenly no more. I took the news badly, withdrawing from everyone for around a week, cutting the lectures and thesis meetings I had at Harvard, and basically moping in my tiny studio flat in Somerville. It surprised me how deeply upset I was. We seemed so right for each other. But timing is everything and ours simply didn’t work out.
Tom never returned to the States. He married his Irish medical student. He stayed on to get his doctorate at Trinity and eventually got a job at the university in Galway. We never saw each other after we broke up. Though I presumed he came home regularly to visit his parents, he didn’t look me up during the years I was living in Cambridge. There was only one communiqué from him: a Christmas card that arrived just a few years later, showing Tom and his wife, Mairéad, and their three very young sons—Conor, Fintan, and Sean. They were standing in front of what looked like a suburban bungalow. The photo amazed me, as Tom was so adamant—like me—about never wanting children and always vowed never to live in the burbs. I didn’t feel a residual stab of sadness when I saw this photograph. Rather, all I could do was marvel at the way the narrative of life inexorably moves on—and how, having been so intensely involved with someone else, you can then simply vanish from each other’s lives. We lose things and then we choose things. Wasn’t that a fragment of a song I heard somewhere? Perhaps with Tom? Or maybe with David? And didn’t David tell me—shortly after we became lovers—that everything is just one big continual coming-and-going?
I did reply to Tom’s Christmas card by sending one of my own. I kept the message short:
You have a lovely family. I wish you every happiness for the coming year. All best…
Of course I wanted to ask him dozens of things: Are you happy? Do you like your work, your new country, your life? And do you ever sometimes think of me, us, and how the narrative of our now very separate lives would have been so profoundly different if… ?
“If.” The most charged word in the English language… especially when coupled with “only.”
As in: if only you hadn’t moved to Ireland, I wouldn’t have ended up for a while with David.
But I wanted to end up with David… even if I knew from the outset that it had no long-term future. Because ending up with David helped me end things with you.
Or, at least, that’s what I told myself at the time.
© 2009 DOUGLAS KENNEDY
Leaving the World
“In this surging epic, a veritable decathlon of the spirit, Kennedy incisively dramatizes the enigma of chance, petty cruelty, and catastrophic evil, ‘unalloyed grief,’ and the tensile strength concealed beneath our obvious vulnerability.” —Booklist (starred review)
On the night of her thirteenth birthday, Jane Howard made a vow to her warring parents: she would never get married, and she would never have children.
But life, as Jane comes to discover, is a profoundly random business. Many years and many lives later, she is a professor in Boston, in love with a brilliant, erratic man named Theo. And then Jane becomes pregnant. Motherhood turns out to be a great welcome surprise—but when a devastating turn of events tears her existence apart she has no choice but to flee all she knows and leave the world.
Just when she has renounced life itself, the disappearance of a young girl pulls her back from the edge and into an obsessive search for some sort of personal redemption. Convinced that she knows more about the case than the police do, she is forced to make a decision—stay hidden or bring to light a shattering truth.
Leaving the World is a riveting portrait of a brilliant woman that reflects the way we live now, of the many routes we follow in the course of a single life, and of the arbitrary nature of destiny. A critically acclaimed international bestseller, it is also a compulsive read and one that speaks volumes about the dilemmas we face in trying to navigate our way through all that fate throws in our path.
Douglas Kennedy on his novel LEAVING THE WORLD
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
After another tension-filled dinner with her parents on her thirteenth birthday, only child Jane Howard makes an announcement: she vows never to marry or have children. The next day, her father leaves the family—something her mother attributes directly to Jane’s declaration. This guilt and abandonment forever impacts Jane and her interactions with other people. After years of academic study, she falls into a clandestine affair with her much-older and married professor. When he dies suddenly, she is bereft and drifts into a relationship and eventually has a child with a film anthologist. Soon after the birth of her child, reality sets in hard and despite her careful planning, her life is thrown into merciless tumult and she is tested in ways she could have never imagined.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. After a particularly tense birthday dinner, thirteen-year-old Jane Howard announces to her parents that she will never marry nor h see more