A review of Withdrawal by Michael Hoffman

Is this artlessness or is it art perfected? One hardly cares, for Hoffman is a natural storyteller and, although this is often not high praise for a writer, it achieves a different dimension when, as here, the writer is sufficient with his people and fearless about ideas.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

by Michael Hoffman
1stBooks 2003
ISBN 1-4033-6940-2, $11.50, 287 pages

The type style is that of the typewriter, a foul thing to read, and the typos are the sort that is usual with publish-on-demand books (exerecise instead of exercise. As the little girl said: “I can spell banana: I just don’t know when to quit”) but the book, as distinguished from its format, makes its merits obvious. In the brief introductory chapter Hoffman describes a home for the elderly, the troubled relationship of the hero with his mother, his brother and his cousin. He establishes links to the events that follow this first chapter and, in short, establishes an intriguing opening. I would never say that a novel is more difficult to write than short stories but this book shows a sort of daring. His first book, The Empty Café, was a collection of stories, many of them very good. There are very few authors who are equally good in both forms.

The hero, Len, has returned home – to Nectar, a suburb of Montreal – after an absence of twenty-five years. During these years he has traveled and supported himself as an English teacher. He finds himself caught up in the life of his family. It is not a pleasant experience. His mother treats him like a child; his father suffers from senile dementia and is confined to a home for the aged and infirm. His brother Adam is a writer who no longer writes. His cousin Eric is set in a second marriage but is eaten by regrets over the first. His old teacher, a man who believed in his talent, gives him a party, a reunion with his former classmates. Len has a child but he abandoned the child’s mother. He is a middle-aged man, broken by a meaningless life. His only protection is a sardonic attitude and a sharp tongue.

Home exercises its spell. He recalls the crush he had on Sonia Halkin in the fourth grade. He is surprised to learn that she is a lawyer on Wall Street and is divorced with two children. She comes back home once or twice a year and one of his former classmates is her closest friend. Len has returned home to assume some of the burden of visiting his father. His brother Adam, once Len is back, bows out and no longer visits his father. His father mentions some diaries and, although his mother dismisses them as the ramblings of a disturbed mind, Len has found them. Adam’s wife Joan tries to befriend Len but he will not be anybody’s friend. It is noticeable in this account of the novel’s progress that much is presented but its coherence is not readily apparent.

The description of the nursing home is accurate and the attention that Hoffman gives it is not simply a display of virtuosity. The nursing home is a metaphor for all the unbalanced of which Len is the significant representative. He like the inmates of the home is divorced from life and reality. His thoughts turn more precisely to the Thai girl that was the mother of his child and he begins to immerse himself in his father’s diaries. He is involved in a tepid love affair with Linda, an old schoolmate, who is married to another old schoolmate that was Len’s enemy in school.

He confronts his father with a notebook that contains his diaries and as he does so he begs for something to hold on to. He has begun to doubt that the Thai girl was pregnant by him and that there is no child by him. But the old man fails to recognize the diaries as his.

He encounters Barbara, the first wife of his cousin Eric and accepts an invitation to dine with her family. His lover’s husband commits suicide. He comforts her and this turns into a sexual encounter of singular intensity. She turns on him and drives him from the house.

His dinner with Barbara and her husband, a rabbi, is pleasant and the rabbi and he establish rapport immediately. Barbara takes advantage of her husband’s absence to arrange to see Len alone. Linda makes peace with him long enough to reintroduce him to Sonia. He offers to be their guide to the home for the elderly. Len meets Adam and Eric at a bar where they tell him that they have formed a suicide pact and want him to join. He will think it over.

Barbara has had meetings with Eric after the first encounter, which shocking to both of them. Love between them has rekindled but Barbara is so immersed in the life of her family, the rabbi and their two daughters, that she is at a loss what to do. As Len takes her to the home, Doreen accosts him. Early in the book she had mistaken him for his brother Adam. She now greets him as himself and implies that she has been set right by Adam himself. What this might mean Len doesn’t know. This concludes part one of the novel.

Earlier Ron Bloom, Len’s former teacher, had confessed to Len concerning a sexual encounter that he had had with one of his students. The former student now brings an accusation against him and he resolves to resign from teaching and his newly acquired political position. Len entreats him to reconsider since, if Ron denies the accusation, everyone will believe him instead of the woman, who is known to be mentally unbalanced. The name of his accuser, it happens, is Doreen.

In a parallel action Len draws closer to Nathan Glass, son of another inmate of the home where Len’s own father is a resident. Len and Nathan do not like each other but the similarity of their situations provides a common ground. Nathan in an attempt to identify Joan, whom he has seen as a frequent visitor of Len’s father, refers to her as the woman with the crooked teeth. This jars Len who has encountered the same phrase in his father’s diaries. Since his father is much like his original self in Linda’s presence, Len takes advantage of this and asks in Linda’s presence about the woman with the crooked teeth. Yes, his father tells him, that would be Joan who once worked for him and with whom he had a brief affair.

The action of these two events – the identity of Ron Bloom’s accuser as Doreen and the identity of Joan as the woman with the crooked teeth and former lover of Len’s father – constitutes a union of similarity. Both involve the recognition in a new relationship of characters known in different contexts. This is a very sophisticated approach to the problem presented by consecutive narration, the problem being one of the tedium induced by jogging along straight ahead from a particular then to some distant now. The writer that can jolt his readers into thinking by such strategies as I have described here is very good indeed.

But what happens – involved and clever in the best sense of the words as it is – is less than the conversations Len has with Rabbi Yanovsky. This is not Barbara’s husband – betrayed by her and Adam – but a character introduced early in the novel as a ridiculously poor singer that Len dismisses as absurd. And it is the embrace of absurdity that Rabbi Yanovsky finds meaningful. He finds God to be a non-existent being without whom it is impossible to live a satisfactory life, thus uniting reason with faith in the only way possible. Hoffman contrasts the honesty and exhilaration of Rabbi Yanovsky with Adam, conspiratorial and manipulative, whose part in Doreen’s accusations against Ron Bloom is at best ambiguous.

Len wonders if in fact his father was disloyal to his wife or if the affair was a fancy that found expression in his diary as a fact. If Saul had betrayed her, did his wife know? In a conversation with Adam, who becomes more and more like Dostoyevsky’s Stavrogin, Len learns that Adam has become sexually dependant on his hatred of Joan. Without this hatred, regardless of his partner at the time, he is impotent.

Len’s mother decides to take Saul from the nursing home. Len argues with her and learns from Rabbi Yanovsky that Barbara has left her husband. This turns out to be one of several loose ends in the novel and, as such, an acceptable reflection of reality.

The situation is very complicated and the pace of the book is less artful than real. Len continues right up to the climax to experience the impact of those about him and to open himself to new situations for which neither he nor the reader are very well prepared. Is this artlessness or is it art perfected? One hardly cares, for Hoffman is a natural storyteller and, although this is often not high praise for a writer, it achieves a different dimension when, as here, the writer is sufficient with his people and fearless about ideas. He has many characters and he keeps them in order so that the attentive reader never has to labor over the ‘who-the-hell-is-he-talking-about-now? ailment of less able writers. Withdrawal shows an advance over The Empty Café. Good as are many of the stories in the latter, the novel seems Hoffman’s natural habitat. This is an honest, well-crafted book by a writer with a fresh voice and original ideas.

For more information, visit: Withdrawal

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: