The mark of a good book is that it sticks with you, in your pores or your teeth if you will, long after reading. Even if you've only read it once, or say ten years ago, a book you've fully digested should never completely exit your body, after the two of you have bonded. A meaningful book continues to haunt you, inspire you, flash an image or two at will and force you to make comparisons with other works of art or literature. For me, this is The Mending Man, by David Collins, one of the most unique books I have encountered.
During the summer of 2004, my first summer living in New York City actually, I was interning at an independent publishing company (wait, that sounds familiar). I often read manuscripts proposed by agents and then wrote reader's reports for the editors. Usually, you're encouraged to read the first 50 pages, and then, if you really like the text, 50-some-odd more, but I was so invested in The Mending Man that I took the manuscript home and read the entire thing in one night. Despite the praises I offered in my lengthy report, the company decided not to publish it, or rather, not to republish. The novel had already been published in Canada in the '70s, but it was nowhere to be found in the US and apparently hadn't received much attention. In fact, if you try to find information about this book on the internet, you'll come up pretty empty-handed (try).
I have only read this book one time, but luckily I still have the reader's report I wrote six years ago, and thus the story is still fresh in my mind. Here is the synopsis, based on memory, my earlier writings, and those haunting images that continue to lurk:
This is a novel about hope. The unnamed narrator composes stories about his conflict-ridden life because he has been arrested and sentenced to prison. For a good part of the book, though, we have no idea that he is in prison, and assume he's trapped in some sort of mental hospital. He is writing for 99 days straight, one hour each day, and hence 99 sub-sections appear within 11 chapters. He is fascinated with numbers.
As he recounts his troublesome life, beginning with how he became handicapped (one leg is significantly shorter than the other due to a childhood accident), we learn that he was neglected and mentally abused by his mother as soon as he became “crippled,” picked on and physically abused by boys at school, and ignored during high school, never once going on a romantic date. He had a difficult time holding down a job and always tried to support himself while attempting to strengthen his relationship with his mother, which never quite worked.
At age forty, he attends The Institute to learn about Health. Dr. Bliss, his mentor, has a unique, alternative method for "helping people" with their medical problems (I distinctly remember suction cups as a healing method, and perhaps some strange machine). The narrator studies philosophy, anatomy and science, becomes an apprentice, and eventually sets up his own (not-so-legal) Health Enterprise. Now we learn that he is telling us his life story for a reason. He has something important to share...the truth.
He never meant to hurt anyone, only to provide them with Health. He never meant to kill that young girl when her father asked him to give her an abortion. He had no idea what he was doing, not having had proper medical training. We, the readers, must come to our own conclusions about the narrator's decisions and moral standing, not only based upon the stories of his difficult and traumatizing past, but upon how we view these types of situations based on our own, distinct morals.
We then come to a further realization that we have learned from him; he has taught us. No matter how we feel about his decisions, he will somehow remain innocent. Pure. This is a novel about many different things, but I say it is about hope because I believe Collins’ main character. He feels as real as anyone, and he is hoping, throughout his writings, that we understand.
My favorite passage from the book:
“Your lifetime is 70 years – three scores and ten – and that’s not much time. Here I can almost touch both walls with my hands outstretched, and yet as far as space is concerned it’s plenty enough for me. But who can touch his own childhood when he’s a grandfather? In fact, who can touch yesterday or tomorrow? It’s way over there some place, already out of sight or not yet into sight. We need both ends of it, or even a little bit of it, at a time. Only this moment we’re in right now, is all the time we can see.” --Collins
(arbitrary artwork by Odilon Redon)