Richard Michael Levine is a journalist whose sharp eye for social commentary infuses his fiction debut in this terrific and often hallucinatory collection of short stories, The Man Who Gave Away His Organs. Subtitled “Tales of Love and Obsession from Mid-Life,” the eight stories and one novella explore varying terrains of love, especially in the wake of loss, experienced by well-meaning but neurotic characters who have reached the third act of their lives and are still searching. The narrators and main characters are mostly male and mostly Jewish, and Levine mines their quests and neuroses with a dark humor that is alternately hilarious and disturbing.
One of Levine’s primary interests (or obsessions) seems to be that seemingly conventional lives can take a sudden sharp turn off the tracks or into bizarre waters at mid-life. The title story, “The Man Who Gave Away His Organs,” constructs an extraordinary tale of a man, Ed, who suddenly, after more than two decades in a seemingly happy marriage and stable career, begins to donate his bodily organs, one by one, in order to give life to others–and slowly shed his own. Levine doesn’t psychoanalyze Ed–was it a religious conversion (his decision to become a bone marrow donor happened at temple on Yom Kippur)? Is he suddenly giving expression to a long-felt need to be someone else? Early in his marriage another character had described his career switch from artist to accountant as “an evolutionary anomaly: a butterfly that turns into a caterpillar.” Had he spent the intervening years as a caterpillar longing to again become a butterfly? Levine gives us plenty to ponder, and we believe in Ed.
A very different story where lives go off the rails is “Tlac,” an unsettling tale told in the style of magical realism about what happens to a good marriage when a child is lost. Grief alternately unites and separates the parents, as the husband becomes passive and withdrawn while the wife pursues a bizarre search for meaning in ancient Aztec rituals. The devastating finale is a stunning act of creative imagination. And the culinary descriptions alone make this story unforgettable.
“Becoming Burt Reynolds” propels another singular character out of his own world and into a jarring world of fake celebrity–and disastrous self-deception. In all these stories, the protagonists are fighting to re-invent themselves, and to reject their mortality. Characters in long-term relationships become strangers to their mates, and Levine seems to suggest the ultimate unknowable-ness of another, even those we know intimately.
Two stories, “Jeopardy” and “A General Theory of Shopping,” deal with painfully unresolved Oedipal struggles of a middle-aged son and his ailing mother, both scarred by family tragedy from years earlier, but clinging to a deep connection that allows them moments of honesty and acceptance. Levine infuses even his morbid topics with a deep vein of satire about the materialistic preoccupations and missed connections of his characters. In “A General Theory of Shopping,” the son alternates his vigil in the ICU with an obsessive phone search of all the Barneys outlets in the country for a certain size and color of polo shirt that, finally procured, “felt…like being caressed by a warm, moist breeze off the nearby Gulf of Mexico.” A caress is a caress wherever you can find it.
Happiness in love makes an appearance in this collection as well, though never without cost. In the beautiful “Love and Death at the Golden Bear Recreation Center,” the main character, Sommers, falls in love first with swimming, and then with a lovely swimmer at a pool overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Sommers is initially overwhelmed by physical euphoria and then, as he becomes a more proficient swimmer, his thoughts in the water become more liberated, and eventually, visionary. Words come to him unbidden and he realizes they are premonitions of loss: his father’s eulogy comes to him shortly before he realizes that his father is dying; his best friend’s eulogy comes to him days before he is killed in a freak accident. And in a vision about the swimmer he falls in love with, she sensuously brushes her breast against his arm underwater, only for him to realize that her breast is missing. Days later she is diagnosed with breast cancer, and a year later she is dead. But by then Sommers has known love for the first time, at age 50. He feels transformed by what he calls his “aquatic personality”–which he sees as “kinder and less hostile than his terrestrial one, the thoughts that came into his mind always caring and–strange to say since they were usually about dying–life-loving.” One day his premonition becomes very personal, when he decides to swim as a thunderstorm suddenly gusts up. Reader, buy this collection to see that vision!
The stories in this book are imaginative and provocative throughout, and the writing fluid and evocative. Levine, like many of his characters, is a transplanted New Yorker whose sensibility evokes the culture of both coasts. He is also a poet (see his wonderful recent anthology, Catch) who revels in language and is particularly eloquent about his adopted state. One character refers to the Bay Area as “the world headquarters for second chances.” That seems a likely description of the author’s own view, and this entire collection may be the likely–and very fortuitous–offshoot of second chances.