Going Backwards by Norma Klein (Scholastic: $12.95)
Doc by Richard Graber (Harper & Row/Charlotte Zolotow: $13.70)
As if the social awkwardness and sexual anxiety of male adolescence wasn't enough, Charles Goldberg, the 16-year-old protagonist of Norma Klein's "Going Backwards," has to suddenly face the mental deterioration of a greatly loved grandmother who has come to share the family's New York apartment.
Within its Upper East Side walls, this verbal, squabbling, funny and loving family paces the incontinent, uncomprehending husk of what had once been a feisty and dominant matriarch.
"In a way it's as though my real grandmother had died and this other person is standing in for her, but not doing a very convincing job, forgetting her lines, wearing the wrong costumes. What's it like for her?"
Charles never finds out, but Norma Klein does a convincing job of portraying what it's like for his family. The emotions with which the Goldbergs face this depressing and ever-shifting balance of relationships--Charles with denial and confusion, his mother with anger, his physician father with helplessness, his little brother with fear--are all textured with compassion and skillfully blended by the author into a vivid depiction of that supremely human act called coping.
Answering the Unanswerable
The tragedy of Alzheimer's, of course, is that coping is not enough. When Dr. Goldberg chooses to ease his afflicted mother's release of life with an overdose of drugs, it is not presented to the reader as a moral action to be judged, but simply as one attempt to answer an unanswerable question.
Given the topic, this novel could have quickly slid into a pit of relentless grimness. That doesn't happen. Charles and his extended family and friends, which include a wonderfully dour and pragmatic housekeeper and a talented dancer girlfriend, are so energetic and human that again and again, there are redeeming moments of great humor and sparkling detail.
In a quirky coincidence of publishing, Richard Graber's "Doc" presents us with another 16-year-old male narrator, Bradley Bloodworth, also a physician's son, also one with an artsy-but-wisdom-filled girlfriend, a pestering but lovable younger sibling, and a whole lot of adolescent confusion compounded by the presence of an Alzheimer's afflicted grandparent.
" 'We're not playing games, Brad,' " his father tells the boy, " 'and I don't want anyone--you or me or anyone--playing Grandpa for laughs.' "
A Jumble of Disasters
And Graber remains true to his own fictional character's admonition, never playing Grandpa for laughs. When Grandpa Bloodworth--the "Doc" of the title--urinates on the floor of the Wellfleet Public Library, it isn't funny; it's just, well, it's one more thing in a jumble of disasters.
When, in one of those odd similarities of detail, Norma Klein's Grandma Goldberg does exactly the same thing on the floor of the Metropolitan Museum, it is also not played for laughs. Neither, though, is it just one more thing. It is a monumental loss of dignity which pains the reader.
The difference between these two thematically similar books seems to lie in the degree of focus.
Set largely on Cape Cod, where Graber lives, "Doc" takes eloquent advantage of the environment in a moving prologue and epilogue. Brad scatters his grandfather's ashes into a still, silent pond on a November day. In so doing, the boy relinquishes the burdening sense of responsibility with which he has tormented himself.
But despite these two moving passages and some well-drawn characters and hard-hitting, realistic dialogue, "Doc" lapses too often into a kind of chaos. Occasionally all of life's misfortunes seem to be in residence at this Wellfleet cottage, as assorted deadbeats, loonies, potential suicides, alcoholics and seductresses mingle and collide.
Even Doc's death, at last, from natural causes, is almost lost in the sound of rescue vehicles, happening as it does at the scene of a car accident and not long after a drunken mishap has killed Brad's best friend.
Despite flaws of varying importance, these are two novels which treat a pervasive problem with the attention it deserves. In very disparate ways, they both pay homage to life without failing to acknowledge the bitter fact that too often mind and body relinquish it at different times.