John Norton was enjoying this vacation more than any other he’d ever taken his family on. He’d already taken a hundred photos on the ride up the steep road that led to Machu Picchu. Marilyn and the children were on a narrow strip of grass with a breathtaking view of the main site and he wanted a picture of them together, so they posed as he backed up for the right shot.
“Be careful,” Marilyn warned.
“No problem. This isn’t nearly as dangerous as the Grand Canyon,” he replied as he got started taking photos, capturing their expressions.
“A dozen people fall into the Grand Canyon every year,” she responded with concern.
He took a small step backward and felt the cord that was strung around the site a foot above the ground against his left calf. Not wanting to lose the shot, he squatted and took a couple more images, but he lost his balance and had to throw his left foot further back until it caught on the rope and, without thinking, he deftly threw his right foot back to catch himself. Too late, he realized what he’d done.
John felt his body fall backward but, unworried, he continued taking photos. He would fall on the ground and look foolish. He’d done that before.
That’s not what happened.
There was no ground.
Time came to a stop for John as he saw Marilyn and the children recede from view, but he kept taking pictures. However, he would have to throw those out because all their faces were twisted in fear.
He had thirteen seconds to make his peace with God and whatever else he considered important because he was falling 1400 feet with nothing to stop him.
“What have I done?” was his first thought.
“You are a moron,” was his second.
His mind had thoughts of its own, like flapping his arms and legs like a fish out of water. He got control of his innate urges after five seconds and stopped trying to fly. He became calm and focused on the surreal sensation of freefall. He closed his eyes and watched his life flash before him.
He was in first grade, sitting on a bench next to a cute girl who wanted to share his bologna sandwich, so they ate together. He had part of her peanut butter sandwich and they became good friends. He thought he’d forgotten her name; it was Pamela. They had become more than best friends by the time they got to third grade, where they played doctor. He smiled at the memory of examining her anatomy closely and letting her examine his. By the time they entered puberty together, they were ready to do more than play.
“Yes,” he thought. “I learned about sex from Pamela and we did it a lot.” Those were fond and long-forgotten memories.
Then, memories of all the girls he’d known after Pamela flooded into his super-attenuated consciousness. He had never thought of himself as a womanizer, but it was plain to him now that he had been and still was. His mind was flooded with all the women he’d had sex with, telling them that he loved them, each and every one. And he had, or so he’d thought at the time. But now he knew he had just wanted to be a stud, someone who dominated every woman he met, and it had been fun. With his eyes closed tightly, he imagined their ample breasts in his hands and their bodies writhing in pleasure under his sexual assault.
That word brought another set of images, ones he would have preferred not to recall during his last moments. Still, he couldn’t help spending a few seconds recalling the women he’d forced himself on; he even remembered their names alphabetically: Adrienne, Cynthia, Elizabeth, Francine, Marilyn (yes, he had married a woman he had assaulted), Nona, Pamela (he had forced himself on her in high school), Tricia, Vanessa, and Zahra. He smiled at remembering raping Nona in his own house after a party. She had fought him at first but, as he’d suspected, she wanted it as badly as he and was moaning by the time he finished. None of them had accused him of rape, so they obviously had all wanted him as much he’d wanted them; they just needed encouragement.
After eight seconds, John’s thoughts got around to Marilyn. He had forced himself on her and she had turned out to be the woman who thought she could control him, and she’d tried; she’d let him assault her continuously until the previous night, when he’d taken her with as much prejudice as the first time they’d met. Another smile crept over his face as he recalled how many women he’d had since marrying Pamela. He’d always assumed that someone like her, a buxom blonde with a healthy libido, was having as much extramarital sex as himself. However, now, with death looming only seconds away, he admitted to himself that she had never cheated on him. He was the cheater. That had been a narrative he’d used to avoid controlling his wanton ways.
With time slipping out of his hands, he thought of the men he’d known. That didn’t take long because he had no friends, only acquaintances. He didn’t like men because he wasn’t gay; why spend social time with people you couldn’t have sex with?
John’s casual review of his life finally centered on his family. He didn’t love his wife, his children, his parents or his siblings. In fact, they were all a nuisance that got in the way of his real interest. He suddenly had a thought and, despite knowing there wasn’t time, he unzipped his pants and, finding that he was aroused from the memories of his past life, began to masturbate.
It turned out that he was so sexually aroused that there was time.
It was the best orgasm of his life.
I’ve read three of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels and more than a dozen of his short stories. This novel has more adventure than the other two (This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned) but isn’t written as well. It almost seemed cut and pasted, some of the scenes were so out of place. In fact, my impression is that he started out writing a novel along his usual slowly developing line and then got in a hurry and wrapped it up (it is really more like a novella with about 60K words by my estimate). The editor notes at the back revealed that he had rewritten major parts after receiving an author’s proof from the publisher.
I liked the way the story was told by a somewhat disinterested man (the only likable person in the story) who met Jay Gatsby as a neighbor. However, everything we learned about Gatsby and his long-lasting love for Daisy was through this narrator retelling what he had been told by Gatsby. I didn’t really get a feel for it and in fact it was so briefly presented that it seemed unimportant to me as I was reading. It was only by reading the extremely long preface, which talked about this as if it was a generational divide, that I realized it was a major theme of the story. It’s worth repeating that the interesting scenes were obviously contrived to fit them into the story. None of it made sense, not even for super-wealthy people with nothing to do with their time.
As with everything else by Fitzgerald that I’ve read, he has a problem with punctuation; specifically, he doesn’t use commas very much, even though he writes long, descriptive sentences with plenty of prepositional phrases. I guess some authors get excited and don’t notice that the pauses that are in their head aren’t indicated in the punctuation. Oh well. This is very common.
Overall, I can’t recommend this book, unless you’re reading anything and everything you get your hands on like I am.
Let’s get the banal part of the review over first. This book is twice as long as it needed to be. The author is long winded, repetitive, and doesn’t appear to know why we use commas in prose. I had to read at least a third of it twice to understand his meaning. As a sidebar, I bought a used copy which had been read (partly) by at least one other person. Their marks ceased at less than half-way through the text. This is not a book for the casual reader.
Having said that, this is an important book, not because of its eloquence (which is negligible) but because the author has successfully presented the first theory of a “well ordered society” since Plato’s Republic. My impression is that John Rawls was tired of Utilitarianism as an approach to how to run a society. Briefly, Utilitarianism is an approach to organizing a society so that the overall good of the total population is maximized without regard to individual rights. This is the paradigm applied throughout the world today. If any particular person or group’s needs are in the way of maximizing GDP or some other arcane socioeconomic index, that’s your tough luck. You get run over by the bus. Believe it or not, that is the world we live in. John Rawls shows this model to be a myth that was accepted because it didn’t require too much thought. I guess he was so frustrated with the state of affairs in the sixties (the first edition was published in 1971) that he dedicated himself to creating an alternative…almost from scratch.
If you read this expecting to see a critique of American democracy, you will be disappointed. Although it is obvious that this is a “thought exercise” about what might have been going through the minds of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, and argued about throughout the colonies, it is not a discussion of American democracy.
This is a purely theoretical work. Rawls starts from the idea of a society constructed from nothing, what he terms the Original Position, in which the framers know nothing about their position in the society they are creating. Using the dialectic of moral philosophy, he proposes what he terms the principles of justice. It is worth mentioning these: the first and paramount principle is that every person has a right to liberty, which cannot be abrogated or in any way reduced; the second principle is that everyone has an opportunity to advance their status, no matter what their original status is. Using this simple ideas, he constructs a model of a “well ordered society,” which is the basis for his development of the theory of “Justice as Fairness.”
The book has three parts, and I must confess that I didn’t understand any of them until I had read the last section. It lays out the basic design of a “well ordered society,” based on the two principles I listed above. Despite his circular reasoning (unavoidable in philosophy I suppose), he makes a convincing argument that his theory is sound; he then puts meat on the bones (so to speak) of his basic theory and discusses the kinds of institutions necessary for a “well ordered society.” All of this is theoretical. He finally discusses the problems with such an imagined society because of the weakness of the human mind and spirit. The last chapters kind of negate the entire theory because he acknowledges and then dismisses this simple fact: people are not rational and too many of us are cheaters.
Nevertheless, the theory of “Justice as Fairness” does suggest how human frailty can be overcome in a “well ordered society” through the proper training of people from birth (no, he does not advocate state-run orphanages, although he does briefly mention it). He offers solid psychological alternatives to taking children away from their parents although they don’t sound too promising to me. I hadn’t imagined how poor our understanding of society was until I read this book; like everyone else, I thought that we were operating on something more than Utilitarian principles like “Don’t get in the way,” until I read this. Rawls’ vision may be utopian but so was the vision of a constitution and liberal democracy in the eighteenth century.
To finish, I will repeat what I’ve learned over the years: if you want to understand something, you have to repeat it again and again, and then maybe you will remember at least the basics. This book is good for that: I cannot avoid thinking of the “well ordered society” and how my country stands up. It doesn’t look too good from where I’m sitting.
George Levy didn’t think of himself as retired. It didn’t matter that he’d failed to obtain financial support for his attempt to acquire a local home improvement store in the Dallas area, so that he could improve their supply chain and make them competitive with the national outfits like Home Depot. This was simply one of many such failed efforts over the years. He had been involved with practically every kind of wholesale and retail venture over the last forty years and setbacks like this were nothing new. He already had several alternative business plans ready, from purchasing a financially imperiled commercial furniture company to buying a fast food franchise. He would have used his savings to complete the transaction, but he’d taken a serious loss on an apartment building he’d purchased just before a private equity firm had built a high-rise building within a mile of his, but theirs was targeted to affluent tenants. They had unlimited amounts of money and no interest in sustainable real estate development and he didn’t have the capital to withstand the initial attraction of what they were promising.
The banks didn’t seem willing to invest in realistic projects like those he had proposed over the last few years. If he were honest with himself, he would have recognized that the heyday of small entrepreneurs like himself was past, at least in large cities like Dallas. But George had always nurtured a dream of rebuilding America in a sustainable way, which to him meant remodeling everything, from apartment buildings to the local hardware store, rather than tearing everything down every few decades and building something flashy and expensive in its place. He was convinced that America was pricing itself out of a sustainable future. Despite his recent setbacks, his children would inherit a substantial fortune when he died because he had always been aware of the need to elevate his family into the upper rungs of American society, especially as a black man. He would leave more than three-million-dollars to his family when he died, which reminded him that he was going to meet his son at White Rock Lake for a walk along the lakeshore.
After checking the time, he went to the garage and got into his twenty-year-old Lexus, which still ran perfectly, and started the engine before realizing that he hadn’t opened the garage door yet. He had read about people dying of carbon monoxide poisoning in their garages. It didn’t sound painful but he didn’t want to die that way. Besides, it took hours and more often than not it didn’t work—someone often wandered by and discovered the unconscious but still alive victim in their car. Sometimes the victims had permanent brain damage, which had made their lives worse than before. He opened the garage door with the remote and, after making certain it was closed, drove sedately through the modest subdivision where he had lived for more than thirty years.
After a short drive, George pulled into the small lot near the water and parked next to Lewis’s new Lexus and found his son waiting impatiently, checking his watch and using his smartphone in ways George couldn’t imagine. He had grown accustomed to minor displays of annoyance from his family and friends ever since he’d been diagnosed as suffering from Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. He hadn’t shared this information with anyone except his wife, which had contributed to their misunderstanding his rapidly increasing forgetfulness as indifference. Were it not for the disease and his obstinate personality, George would have known that this was the reason for his recent series of failed business endeavors. Lewis ended his on-line activity and greeted George warmly.
“He there, Pop. I was just checking with Mom if you had forgotten we were meeting today. How’s it going?”
George was very proud of Lewis, who had gone to college and gotten a degree in finance, which meant he would be prepared to take care of the family’s financial security in the future. He hugged his son and said, “Everything’s going great. I think we’re all in good shape. By the way, how’s your wife…” He paused because he’d forgotten Lewis’s wife’s name.
“Janine is great and so are the kids.” He put his hand on George’s shoulder and led him toward the trail that followed the lake shore as he continued, “Sharla is turning out to be a very good swimmer, although I’m not buying tickets for the next Summer Olympics yet, and Ethan is starting to look like a bookworm…like his grandfather. He does math problems for fun, if you can believe that!”
George chuckled because he remembered how much fun math had been when he was a child, before he’d learned that there was no money in math, at least not when he was a child. But times had changed. He had an idea, which he expressed as they strolled along the quiet water.
“Maybe I should get his help on my next project? I think my financial projections were off a little and that’s why the bank didn’t support my business plan. Still, they’ve made so much money from my past projects that they should have trusted me…”
Lewis interrupted his thoughts as he said, “I’ll get you two in touch, Pop. That’s a great idea. Of course, I’m here to help too. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I do have some experience in commercial financing.”
George scoffed. “I know that, Lewis. That’s why I trusted you with my accounts. You’re a good man, Lewis, and I hope that someday you will take responsibility for the legacy I’ll be leaving you and your sister. I’m counting on you.”
Lewis, being a good son, didn’t want to tell his father what the state of his legacy was because it would serve no purpose. His mother had told him about George’s diagnosis, and it broke his heart to see a man with a vision, and the will to act on it throughout his life, being destroyed by a disease he hadn’t brought on himself. He was trying to think of a response when his father continued.
“Of course, the inheritance tax will take almost half, which will leave you with less than two-million dollars; however, I know that you’ll put it to good use. You’re smarter than me and you went to college.” He laughed and Lewis joined him while holding back his tears.
Since learning of his father’s illness, Lewis had done a lot of research, spoken to George’s doctor with his mother present, and read several books about Alzheimer’s disease. He should be honest with his father when it was necessary, which he didn’t think was the case, until George continued.
“I’ve been thinking that it might be a good idea to let you take over the family fortune.” George waved his hands dismissively and added, “I know I’m not old enough to retire but you’ve a better mind for finance than me and the whole world is about the latest fad in derivatives and other exotic financial instruments. Don’t argue with me because I’ve made up my mind. I want you to take over.”
Lewis hated himself for what he was about to say. He waited until they had passed a young couple with their toddler daughter before saying, “Pop, I know that you have Alzheimer’s. Mom couldn’t keep it a secret because it’s too much for her to bear alone. I want you to know that we’ll all be with you every step of the way. You’ve been a great father and provider and you will always be an inspiration to all of us. You’re not alone in this.”
George wanted to walk away and leave Lewis standing there but he didn’t. Instead he stopped walking and turned to his son. “Don’t treat me like a moron, boy! I raised you and put bread on the table and I’ve set aside a nice legacy for you, which I just now said you should take responsibility for, so don’t patronize me, or I might change my mind!”
Lewis nodded and grimaced as he did what the experts had recommended. He nodded apologetically and said, “I’m sorry for offending you, Pop, but there’s something you need to understand. Things aren’t the same as they were. It’s different now…”
George retorted before his son had finished speaking. “Maybe I was premature in trusting you with my savings. Maybe you aren’t ready to take on such a responsibility.”
Lewis faced his father and, after rubbing his forehead with his hand, took a deep breath and said, “Pop, that’s what I’m talking about. There is no Levy family legacy. You emptied your reserve when you invested in the stock market last year. That was before you gave me access to your accounts. I speak for Joseph and Nadine when I say that you’ve already given us more than most young people could expect, and we appreciate it and love you for putting our futures first. Thank you for being such a thoughtful and loving father.”
George struggled to comprehend what Lewis had said for a minute. Finally, he stammered, “Did I blow your inheritance? Is that what you’re saying? I had meant to leave you with a nice nest egg…I mean, Goddamnit! I’m only sixty-four. How could I have done that?!”
Lewis put his around his father’s shoulders, feeling somehow empty inside as he replied, “None of that matters. We’re all in good financial shape thanks to your teaching us the importance of planning ahead. You’ve done a good job, Pop, and no one would dispute that.”
George nodded numbly. “Thanks, son. Let’s get going because I’m working up an appetite with all this walking. I’m going to be hungry by the time we go to lunch…and I think you said it was your treat?”
Lewis grinned and patted George on his shoulders as he replied, “Me too. I always get hungry when I go for a walk with you, Pop.”
They made their way back to the parking lot, where they got in their cars and drove to a barbecue restaurant where they found a table near the front, which faced the street through large windows. George always liked to have plenty of light when he ate because he had tasted too many hairs in his mouth over the years and he preferred seeing them on his plate rather than finding them with his tongue. This remarkable ability, which he had demonstrated repeatedly, was demonstrated when their salads arrived.
George held up the hair he had seen in his salad to the window and said, “See what I mean?”
Lewis didn’t laugh, which was what the family always did when eating with George as a group, and seriously responded, “It’s a good thing we got a table near the window.”
Instead of wiping the hair onto his napkin, George examined it closely and finally pronounced, “It’s from one of those Mexicans they hire, probably illegal; those people have no understanding of simple hygiene. They’re just a bunch of barbarians, not much more than animals.”
Lewis nodded and changed the subject with his response. “So, Pop, do you think you’re ready to retire?”
Recalling that he was dying of Alzheimer’s disease, George filled his mouth with his Caesar salad and made his son wait before he answered, “Apparently, I retired several years ago but I was too proud to admit it. All I’ve been doing is entertaining my dying brain at the expense of my family.”
Lewis was aghast at this statement. “What are you talking about? You’ve been doing the same thing that took care of us all our lives. Sure…maybe it is time to retire and enjoy the fruits of your lifetime of hard work.”
George nodded as their entrees arrived; he was having a half-rack of ribs and Lewis had pan-fried snapper with a hollandaise sauce. As they ate their meals, he was reminded of the progress of all of his grandchildren, whose names he was having difficulty remembering, by Lewis. But the thing that was foremost in his mind was that he had been living in a fantasy world, where he had millions of dollars to bequeath to his children. He had lost it all and didn’t even remember it. That was too much for George.
When the check came and Lewis paid it, George knew that his children were going to be okay, despite his failure to carry through on his original desire to take care of them. He knew that his son was patronizing him as they left the restaurant and stopped for a last hug before going to their cars.
“Take care of yourself, Pop, and don’t be a stranger. The kids really love it when you and Mom come to visit. I mean it. They love you more than I do, which I hadn’t thought was possible.”
Reaching in his jacket pocket for his car keys, George felt a stiff piece of paper, which he removed and examined in confusion. It was a Powerball lottery ticket that he didn’t remember buying. Lewis noticed his confusion and asked what was up.
“I must have bought a lottery ticket.” He went to Lewis and offered it to him. “Maybe this will make up for my having squandered your inheritance.”
“No, Pop, you keep it. Maybe you felt lucky that day and it would ruin the karma if I took it.”
George shook his head. “No. I remember now. I meant to give it to you. I had just been looking at my financial records and realized that I was broke and went to the store for bag of chips and it struck me. This is all I have to leave you but promise me that you’ll share the money with the rest of the family.”
Lewis reluctantly accepted the ticket and made George promise that he would come to visit that weekend.
When he got home, George received a phone call from an old friend he had gone duck hunting with many times over the years. Tom didn’t waste much time in getting to the reason for his call.
“I was just sitting here, looking at all these shotguns I’ve collected over the years, and I thought of you. Do you recall that time my favorite birddog, Patsy, ran off and we spent the day trying to find a dog rather than shooting ducks?”
George remembered that day as if it were yesterday. “Daisy. The dog’s name was Daisy,” he corrected, proud of his good memory.
“Oh yeh! That’s it. Patsy didn’t sound right. At any rate, you still have that old Remington 870, don’t you?”
“Sure, but I haven’t used it in five years. It’s well-oiled and stored properly. What do you have in mind?”
“Get it out and clean it up because we’re going to brush up on our shooting. Don’t even try and wiggle out of it, George, because I’ve already made a reservation at the hunting club to shoot some skeet.”
Tom had always been like that. It was impossible to say no to him because he expressed so much anticipation of whatever activity he was proposing. George reluctantly agreed and, after a few more minutes of recalling previous hunting adventures, Tom hung up and left George thinking about his thirty-year-old shotgun. It took a while for him to find the key to the gun cabinet; actually, it required his wife’s assistance to recall where he might have left it several years before, which was the last time he’d opened the cabinet. She expressed surprise at his sudden renewed interest until he explained that he was going skeet shooting with Tom that weekend. She had always liked Tom and had shot her fair share of skeet and even ducks, often with him and his wife, but not in the last twenty years.
His wife went back to the kitchen to make dinner while George began to clean his shotgun, in the middle of which he forgot why he was cleaning it. Confused, he went to ask his wife with the weapon in his hand. When he appeared in the kitchen with a shotgun held in his hands, she was startled.
“What the hell are you doing in here with that smelly old gun, George?”
He looked at her helplessly and responded, “I was going to ask you the same question. Why am I cleaning it?” He shrugged and she understood the cause of his confusion.
She rushed to him and pushed the gun aside so that she could hug him before responding. “We’re going skeet shooting with Tom this weekend and you need to clean it and make sure it isn’t rusty from sitting in the cabinet for so many years. Don’t you remember?”
He shook his head, but now he had a purpose, so he thanked her and went back to the study with the shotgun dangling from one hand. He cleaned it thoroughly and checked its operation, which he convinced himself of after dozens of times operating the pump and trigger. However, he didn’t have any ammunition so he couldn’t check if it would jam or not. Sitting there with his freshly cleaned shotgun on the table in front of him, he forgot why he was in this position; and then he recalled that he was going to put the firearm to one last use. He had already forgotten about his skeet-shooting plans with Tom. At any rate, he would have to get a box of ammo because he needed at least one shell for what he intended to do.
By the time he had gotten a box of ammo the next day, George was having second thoughts about his original plan. It would be traumatic for his wife (he couldn’t remember her name) to enter the study and find the mess he imagined would have been produced by his planned action, so he went skeet shooting with his wife and met Tom at the hunting club. His eyesight and reflexes were undiminished, and he got a better score than Tom at the end of the course. They had lunch at the clubhouse, where they were joined by Tom’s wife, Hailey, whose name George remembered for some reason. During the course of the meal, which consisted of a barbecue pork sandwich for George, the topic of the opioid epidemic came up and how many people were dying of overdoses. He listened carefully as Hailey described how easy it was to get these drugs, especially in Houston which had more than twelve-hundred overdose deaths the previous year. George didn’t think these victims of the drug crisis had died in pain or left a mess for someone to clean up. Had they been his age, their deaths could easily have been mistaken as a heart attack.
George had a new plan. It wasn’t actually a plan but a painless and less-traumatic way of accomplishing his objective. However, he didn’t know any drug dealers and couldn’t imagine himself in Sunnyside, looking to buy opioids from a drug dealer. This was a problem because he had no medical conditions that required pain medication and his doctor had expressed his opinion about other doctors who had been tempted by the big pharmaceutical companies to over-prescribe drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin many times.
With what remained of his conscious mind focused on this problem, George stumbled (literally) into a solution. His wife had just finished mopping the kitchen floor when he ran in to share something with her, which he had forgotten by the time of the event. She warned him about the wet floor just as he lost his footing and fell against the countertop, his right temporal lobe taking the brunt of the impact while his right wrist snapped as he hit the floor, whereupon his head had a second impact, this time with the tile floor. He didn’t pass out, but he lay on the kitchen floor like a pile of rags as his wife (her name is Shirley) called nine-one-one.
George had broken his wrist and fractured his pelvis in his fall, and his conservative doctor prescribed Vicodin for the pain, which George had reported as being much greater than what he actually felt. He was in a good mood as he left the hospital in a wheelchair pushed by Lewis, with a bottle of pain relief in his pocket. He would not have to suffer losing his personality and sense of being as so many others like himself. He had a painless escape plan. Shirley watched him closely for the first few days after his homecoming and then it settled down. He could walk with his fractured pelvis and so, one evening when she was reading a book, he emptied the entire bottle of Vicodin into a glass and filled it with his favorite Scotch. After creeping silently back to his bed after this painful effort, he put on his headphones and started a playlist he had recently compiled for this purpose on his smartphone, before taking several minutes to down the Scotch and the Vicodin. He was very happy and died with a smile on his face as Michael Bolton crooned When a Man Loves a Woman.