Peter Heller & Molly McCloskey

Nobody could ever accuse me of living a totally highbrow life. You can just as easily find me barreling down the road belting out a Willie Nelson song, elbow deep in a bag of salt ’n’ vinegar chips, as at the opera.

Heller_CelineIt’s in that spirit that I recommend Celine by Peter Heller. Not that it’s really a lowbrow book. Just that it’s so much fun to read it feels like a guilty pleasure. For starters, the protagonist is north of 70 and feisty as hell. She’s a blue blood Social register type who grew up in Paris and attended the posh Brearley School for Girls and Sarah Lawrence. She’s also a sharp-shooting private investigator who lives in a tiny apartment under the Brooklyn Bridge and specializes in reuniting birth families, pro bono.

Her partner, Pete, with whom she has a loving, supportive relationship, is a Harvard educated former Communist, Wall Street architect, amateur historian, and long-haul backpacker. Also a recovering legendary drinker, as is Celine.

These two have a blast together on a road trip up to Jackson Hole to solve a case. The case itself, involving a young woman’s long-missing father and an international conspiracy, is almost beside the point. This is the Celine and Pete show and it’s well worth the ride.

Heller’s prose keeps us engaged as the duo find themselves in rural bars “packed with locals drinking beer like it was a job.” At a roadside traffic jam where “someone must have spotted some charismatic megafauna,” they find “a heavy woman in camp with a graphic of Bin Laden in red crosshairs on the back and two boys in Duke T-shirts holding beers with insulators what said ‘Vaginavore.’” While Celine resists the temptation to teach them a lesson, the waitress-assaulting Harley guy several bars down the road doesn’t get off as easily.

I recently read a novel (mercifully I forget the name) where the main character was over sixty and portrayed as all done for that reason alone. What? Celine is a welcome antidote to that kind of ageist bullshit to which, for some strange reason, I feel increasingly sensitive.

McCloskey_strayingThank goodness Molly McCloskey is a hell of a writer. That’s why I stayed with Straying, her novel that details the breakup of the marriage of a young American in Ireland and her Irish husband, even though the story didn’t engage me. The novel is told from the point of view of the protagonist, who spends her life following her divorce working in NGOs in war zones around the world, and looks back on the summer of the affair, trying to make sense of it.

At one point, in her her rumination, she laments

that narrowing of world that comes with age, I know that, like all children, I overlooked much and took everything for granted, and that even into the early years of adulthood, when i thought about the world at all in that way, I mistakenly assumed that all of its good, beautiful things would come round again, and then again, and again, until the time was right for me to pluck them. Now I am old enough to know that there are people I would like to see again whom I have already seen for the last time, there are places I dream of returning to that I will never revisit, and though a few things do come around again and offer themselves, many more do not.

Wow. Too true.

And here she is after her mother’s death:

My mother used to say, in her later years, “Don’t buy me anything. I’m trying to shed stuff.” And she had, and so cooly. I could hardly fathom it, that at the end of a long life, the physical evidence of it should be so inadequate to its depth and breath. I felt I should be able to open the book of my mother’s life and glimpse multiple interiors in three dimensions, vast tracts of earth and sea traversed, eras, skies, a thousand roads. Instead, there were a few dishes and wineglasses, come laundry, shampoos, and creams I didn’t know whether to use or discard.

Yup, read this one for the gorgeous prose.