October 19, 1999
by Kay Kimbrough
THE PAINS OF APRIL
Frank Turner Hollon
Over the Transom Publishing, 1999.
Frank Turner Hollon's first book presents the life of a modern man suffering from angst in short, vivid and meaningful scenes. Hollon is a poet, and he uses poetry's economy and verbal compression to say a great deal in a small book. His style is reminiscent of Walker Percy's and those of Percy's models, Sartre and Camus. He manages to miraculously combine elements from the existentialism of all three in the personality of his narrator. Like Camus' stranger, he is honest in his admissions of guilt. The narrator does not commit murder because the sun in his eyes as Camus' Meursault does, but he does hit his young daughter "across the face" one morning when she finds him drunk on the lawn. Like Sartre's Roquentin of LA NAUSEE, Hollon's narrator faces the terrifying power of his own freedom. Like Percy's moviegoer, the narrator moves along a safe and narrow path, watching, observing, but not acting: "I am the perfect witness. I see everything and change nothing. My eyes see the beauty and the injustice, and my hands stay buried in the bottoms of my pockets."
The unnamed narrator is in his eighties, confined to a nursing home and aware that his freedom is limited. He must behave like an obedient child. He has ample time to reflect on his life, and his reflections always center on his relationships with members of his family and others he was close to physically if not emotionally. He feels guilty for his perceived failures while realizing that others were disappointing him while he disappointed them. He sees death as the great liberator but fears it anyway. The nursing home functions as a prison, and the narrator seems to accept his incarceration. After all, he has felt trapped in his own body and consciousness for many years, unable to break through its walls and connect with others in an authentic way.
Unlike the forerunners of Hollon's existential hero, his narrator is aware that there is a way out of his despair, but he does not know how to achieve it. Writing of his grandmother's death, he names the problem: There just isn't enough time to get to know everyone the way they deserve to be known. We spend so much of the day on ourselves." His grandmother leaves him "a matching set of souvenir spoons she had bought in New York."
This legacy begins the list of images the narrator uses to illuminate his problems with the females in his life. His wife dies young; he remembers her as "purples and golds and sharp edges." His younger sister dies as he watches the line on her heart monitor go flat. He remembers, "I had always liked her, but that may be because I never knew her." His mother locked him in the bathroom "for hours and hours," but he remembers this confinement as therapeutic. The coldness and whiteness of the fixtures reflected "the thoughts that grew behind the locked door of that bathroom."
These images are effective in communicating the narrator's malaise in dealing with women. The metallic and porcelain surfaces, the sharpness, the barriers between men and women culminate in a comical but menacing image, "a bullet-breasted nurse," a caretaker hired by his daughter whom he plots to kill for the two years she is with him. He does not succeed in his plot, but he does get rid of her by accidentally shooting the refrigerator and giving his daughter a reason to cart him off to the rest home.
Relationships with men are naturally much easier. The narrator makes three friends in the nursing home. The four friends react differently to the absurdity of their situation. The narrator watches and remembers. Weber commits acts of absurdity, but he does not keep his hands in his pockets. Gus is the man who took advantage of his freedom to commit suicide but failed in the attempt, although he had been quite successful in making money in the stock market.
Sidney acts with unselfish devotion in moving to the nursing home with his wife when it became impossible for him to deal with her alone because she has Alzheimer's disease. His sacrifice is absurd, for she does not recognize it, but the absurdity does not seem to matter. The purity of his selflessness is the point. He is a good man. Sidney's cheerful concern for his wife is offered in contrast to the fear expressed by the narrator's confidant from his younger years, Mr. Bailey, who insists that love is a trap, a prison, and that whatever a man loves ends up costing him, forcing him to sacrifice. The narrator understands that Mr. Bailey's fear is a product of painful experiences and does not judge him. Instead, he feels comfortable confiding his fears to Mr. Bailey. "His heart got to stay in his chest while mine sat on the living room table on one of my mother's white china plates."
The coldness and hardness of the plate holding the narrator's heart is in sharp contrast to Sidney's warm hands holding his wife's face: "She was a memory to Sidney. A memory of fifty happy years. He didn't have to picture her face in his mind. He could hold it in his hands every day."
At the end of the book, the narrator has come to terms with his life through the understanding of Sidney's sacrificial love for his wife. There is a flood, a fire, a sacrifice, and. finally, a renewal of life in a surprising scene.
The style, the originality of language, the believable characters, the narrator with his burden of human freedom, the humor, the wit, and the message make this a remarkable debut for Hollon. He builds on a twentieth century tradition while expanding and deepening its application to the reality of life in the present.