In the novel Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin, a woman whose brilliant Shakespearean scholar husband develops early-onset Alzheimer’s is urged to put him in a nursing home. Her refusal, etched in grief, is the crux of this extraordinary novel.
Of all the dreaded afflictions that affect the human mind, the one that has come to be known as Alzheimer’s disease is surely among the worst.
There are other ways to suffer, particularly in old age. Many involve excruciating physical pain, which Alzheimer’s rarely causes. Many are highly contagious, which Alzheimer’s is not. Some can be palliated by medicinal treatment. But Alzheimer’s involves the pain and grief of forgetting, little by little, until in the last stages even one’s children are unrecognizable. And nothing like a cure has yet entered the pharmacopeia for Alzheimer’s.
So when someone begins to “lose their grip,” those who care about that someone face numerous dilemmas. Chief among them is, how bad is it?
Serious, bad, and very bad would be three useful categories. And we encounter all three, one after another, in Joshua Henkin’s recent novel, Morningside Heights, whose narrative voices we get to know as this fine book unfolds. One is that of Professor Spence Robin, a brilliant, revered Shakespearean scholar at Columbia University (hence the book’s title) who develops early-onset Alzheimer’s. In his twenties when the story begins, he’s already beginning to be symptomatic in his 50s. We hear from his young wife, Pru, who was his student at Columbia when she fell in love with him. Other narrators are his daughter Sarah, whom he had with Pru, and his son, Arlo Zackheim, just 8 months old when Spence and his first wife split up and he was forced to give up nearly all his parental rights overnight.
Although the book frequently shifts time and location, the major setting is New York City. There, the teenage Arlo comes to live with Spence (“the youngest tenured professor in Columbia’s history”) after a catastrophic sojourn with his mother, an erstwhile midwife, on a hippie farm in Delaware. Henkin treats us to one of the most thorough expositions of 1970’s and 1980’s New York in recent fiction: subway stations, nightclubs, beloved eateries, diverse humanity thronging the streets (which are not so diverse anymore). As a New York Times reviewer wrote, his book “radiates a tenderness for the city that we, his intended readers, can best appreciate — perhaps now most of all, as we ask our city to return to us.” We are also immersed, thoroughly immersed, in the politics of the era — as well as reminded of how easy it was then to avoid politics altogether in favor of romance, careerism, and the traumas of personal development.
Arlo, a small, shy boy, is early on labeled dyslexic. There are inadequate resources in his public school for kids like him. Henkin skillfully lays out what Arlo, who eventually becomes a wealthy computer software designer, had to go through trying to use his unusual mental skills. Schools – public, private, and “remedial” – don’t help. At age 14, the narrator concludes:
“For thousands of years humanity had done fine without reading, and during the Fall of his Junior year, Arlo resolved to do without reading too. As the semester wore on, and he continued to disappoint himself, he thought of another word his father had taught him, abdicate, and he started to see school, to see his whole time in New York, as a well-meaning, failed experiment.”
Arlo, out of touch with his mother for years, contacts her to remind her that she had always said if things didn’t work out for him in New York, he could come live with her. She had been living with a wealthy lawyer from London, but when she picks him up he realizes, to his alarm, that he has no idea where they are going.
Morningside Heights then shifts, for the remaining half of the book, to Spence Robin’s Alzheimer’s odyssey and the caregiving of his valiant wife, Pru. It is not a pretty picture. (“He used to move with such grace. Now he lurched like a drunkard.”) Her attempts to make Spence understand what’s happening to him sporadically penetrate his mental space. But it doesn’t last long. He’s convinced he’s still teaching, although he was forcefully retired. He’s convinced he’s still completing his next book; in reality, he hasn’t written a word in two years. Some days he recognizes people; some days he doesn’t. In one terrifying scene, he leaves their apartment and can’t be found for hours.
Along the way, elements familiar to those of us who’ve witnessed the mental and physical decline of a loved one appear in all their grim detail. Supposedly breakthrough cures turn out to be illusory. Paid caregivers come and go. Even the most sympathetic caregiver in Morningside Heights, a Jamaican mother with a quirky teenage son, eventually quits. Money becomes a thorny issue as Professor Robin loses the salary and benefits that came with the Columbia throne, and his wife has to quit her job to help care for him.
Meanwhile, life outside goes on. Sarah is in medical school, then a doctor, and Arlo ends up at Yahoo on the other side of the country. Working behind the scenes, Arlo and his worried sister help his father into a clinical trial that involves a move to D.C., but to no avail. Through the children we experience San Francisco, Oregon, Los Angeles, and points in between – travels that highlight the increasing isolation of their parents. Like many family caregivers, Pru is isolated, lonely, grieving and exhausted. But Pru, who concedes that she had long basked in the reflected glow of her husband, finds her own strengths: loyalty, caring, grace. She meets a man who, the book hints, may be there for her after Spence. But for the present her love for her husband is paramount. “Eventually [Spence] would stop recognizing her…. He wouldn’t know who she was. She didn’t want to be there for that, but she would be there for that, as she would be there for everything.”
The life of the mind is wonderful, but a mind under siege is a terrible territory to explore. Only the most daring and sensitive authors engage it successfully. In his third novel, Joshua Henkin now joins them. Since he is only 56, we can hope for many more quality works to come.
Larry Bensky is a veteran journalist based in Berkeley, California. He got his start in arts coverage at the Paris Review and as a reviewer at the New York Times Book Review.