“People continued to pass by, and I meant nothing to them, as they meant nothing to me. Who needed to court their approval? Why had such a need ever been important to me? And this particular group was especially pitiful. Here they were, just leisurely strolling about, gazing in windows, stopping in shops, hurrying off to drinks or a late lunch, while a thief and a madman traveled among them, by their side, almost shoulder to shoulder. And the fools didn’t even know it. They believed themselves to be perfectly safe.”
Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for novels told by an unreliable narrator. I also have a perverse interest in any book set in an asylum, so add those two factors together and throw in a name I already know, Ronald De Feo, who delighted me in 2011 with his extremely unusual novel, Calling Mr. King –the story of a hit man who finds an inner life. It’s a triple whammy. How could I lose?
Ott, a man in his 30s, is our unreliable narrator. He once had a career as a New York editor, but his life began a downhill spiral when his wife Elizabeth left, and after a meltdown, he found himself being carted off to the mental health ward at Essex Hospital. Well, this is Ott’s version of events, and as the novel continues, we discover, of course, that Ott’s view of life is inaccurate. His problems extend far beyond the breakdown of his marriage, and if anything, marriage was a failed attempt at normalcy and connection with another human being. But hey, things could be worse–there’s also a violent ward at Essex and Ott isn’t on it. He also isn’t being shipped off to Courtland, a hospital for more permanent cases, full of “frigging zombies talking to walls and chairs.” No, life is looking up for Ott; he’s on the brink of being given a solo pass to spend a few hours outside of the hospital by himself. A solo pass is a trial run of sorts, a taste of full release and theoretical freedom . Will Ott be able to handle it?
According to seasoned patient, Mandy, a young trust fund woman, there’s a knack to being released. She advises Ott to “just tell them what they want to hear.” ‘Them,’ of course refers to the doctors in the ward–the ones who make the decisions about medication and further treatment. She also advises Ott not to open his mouth to rant against his bête noir, that “uncouth bastard,” Prodski, Ott’s former therapist, and as it turns out, the man Ott blames for the breakdown of his marriage and his life. Mandy is an expert on solo passes–on her last one, she immediately found another former patient and had sex. These days we’d call Mandy a sex-addict, but back in the 60s she’d be on the nympho ward in Sam Fuller’s spectacular over-the-top film, The Naked Kiss (yes, one of my favourites).
Solo Pass takes us through Ott’s preparations for a few hours of ‘freedom’ in one afternoon. Of course, since we are privy to Ott’s innermost thoughts while his doctor is not, we get a sense of whether or not he’s ‘ready’ to fly solo, or whether this is a risky venture:
“Any of those strange feelings lately?” Dr. Petersen asked, referring to those feelings that used to creep up on me–at my job, at home with my ex-wife, just about anywhere and at any time. There I’d be by the window of my office staring out at the office buildings across the way or sunk down in my favourite easy chair at home studying Elizabeth reading on the sofa, and I’d suddenly feel that I didn’t belong, that I had been placed in someone else’s life, that everyone and everything around me was foreign, unfamiliar, wrong.
No, I told her. None at all. And I smiled again, this time to indicate that I now regarded those feelings as rather ridiculous, a product of an illness that was no longer with me. Why the very mention of them amused me more than anything else. I conveyed this amusement well. Yes, I believe I was very convincing.
Through Ott’s memory, glimpses of his married live with Elizabeth emerge along with scenes of his hostility at work:
And when I discovered that my immediate boss, Richard Lorch–a smug, officious nuisance–had an aversion to office plants, considered them bourgeois and decorative clichés, I brought in more. “What’s the point?” he had the nerve to ask one day when he caught me hanging up a new addition. Perhaps to annoy you, I answered in my head.
Apart from his relationship with Mandy, Ott also chats with other patients, including Wally, a man addicted to cheesy TV programmes and Tommy, a man with a history of violent behaviour:
He held up a sheet of paper covered with what looked like graffiti–words, circles, cylinders in red and blue ink–quite a mess really, an aggressive, violent one at that, “My plan for attacking Iran,” he said, and went on to explain that the dozens of circles represented tanks, our tanks, thousands of them, and that they would form a line and sweep down into the country and destroy everything in their path. And then they would get air support from thousands of fighter jets–the cylinders–that would be firing on anything the tanks missed.
“Fuckin’ great, right?” he said when he finished detailing his battle dream,. “We’ll wipe out all those fucks. Right?”
One of the subtler aspects to the novel is the idea that certain bizarre behaviours are condoned by society while others are deemed unacceptable, and of course, the real question here is just who gets to decide which behaviours are ok while other behaviours are not. For example, Ott’s uncle insists on dressing smartly to visit graves. It’s a sign of respect, he argues, while Ott can’t see the point. However, when Ott calls his own answering machine and leaves himself a message this is considered most peculiar by Uncle Arthur. Bottom line, once you’re deemed ‘unstable’ good luck getting that label changed.
In this highly engaging novel, Ott presents his version of events, but we are still able to see cracks in the narrative, and eventually a well-formed picture of what really happened emerges. Are Ott’s workmates “cool or just plain indifferent?” And why did the secretary resign “for personal reasons?” This is a story of a man who doesn’t fit in, and his attempts to do so have failed abysmally. Now with time out, therapy and the appropriate medication, what will happen during this test run–a solo pass for a few hours? The novel’s conclusion didn’t go in the direction I perversely urged, but that is, I think, my personal preference, and not the fault of the story. Ultimately, author De Feo shows that the weight of conformity and a desire to belong to a social group can be both a terrible burden, an overwhelming challenge, and oddly enough a liberating choice. Some of us just have to go farther to find a comfort zone.