And you read your Emily Dickinson
And I my Robert Frost
And we note our place with book markers
That measure what we’ve lost
—Paul Simon, The Dangling Conversation
As happens with the characters in Adjustments, readers of this complex novel will also have their perceptions exposed and altered. It happens rather quickly. We learn that things are not always what they seem, or maybe they are what they seem as well.
Joe Murphy, a 75-year-old retired fireman, summons Will Phillips, an insurance adjuster, for a leaky roof. Upon entering Joe’s house, Will encounters the first puzzle about Joe—a scuffed pair of roller skates on a church kneeler. And we readers are now set on an odyssey of discovery about these two men, unlikely ever to be friends, and the characters, past and present, that come and go in the places of their lives.
When I write I choose my words carefully, So I notice the very first sentence does not read, What would an old man do with a pair of roller skates? It does not say, What does an old man want with a pair of roller skates? The first sentence that begins the novel reads:
What does an old man need with a pair of roller skates?
And so I continued reading with my first impressions of what Adjustments might be about: In a world where things may or may not be what they seem, how do we learn what we need? How do we learn the needs of others in our lives? What is a friend and where and how do we find them?
Within these questions are others, crisscrossed like the frayed laces of that pair of roller skates:
What is the difference between alone and lonely? Will seemed to like being by himself on the road instead of the office work necessary to his job. He did admire the character of Barton Keyes, his three-piece suit and big cigar. But then he went nostalgic for the country with its old barns and farmers in classic coveralls.
Pulling off the road once at the summit of the Dakota Coteau he was absorbed in the beauty and peace of the valley below.
When people talk about the landscapes that seem to go on forever, they’re talking about this place.
For twenty years, I lived in the deep country in North Carolina, well over an hour from Raleigh where I worked. Cities and their people have a lot to offer. I enjoyed the culture there, but as the day progressed toward evening my thoughts drifted most times to my porch swing, where I could hear the night move through the trees under a multitude of stars. So I can understand Will’s conflicting feelings. I felt he harbored a hidden loneliness beneath the façade of a loner.
Joe, on the other hand, was lonely. He missed Millie, his wife whom he told Will had been gone now eight years, three months and six days. Throughout their marriage, she read him a poem every morning at breakfast. It was poetry that brought them together.
Poetry can be a peculiar gateway, Will. It can be a way into all kinds of things that don’t seem to have a way in, or that we don’t even know we want in.
Poetry plays a major role in Adjustments, the choices the characters make for a poet. With Will and Joe it is Keats. What is the significance of Will’s identical copy of Keats having an upside-down cover? Pearl Jenkins likes Emily Dickinson. And Joe names his cats Emily and Eliot. Hmmm.
How do these characters come to need one another and why. Does accident shape our lives as much as what we plan with the things we do? For me, so far, Joe seems to be somewhat of an angel for Will. Not really a destiny (Is there even such a thing outside romance stories?), but the two seem to satisfy a need previously missing and different for each man.
What to do with the past and memories? What do we do with our fears, those that are good, those that are not?
What are your thoughts? Share with us in the comment box.
Read along with us:
November 20: Chapters 1 – 17
December 4: Chapters 17 – 34
December 11: Chapters 34 – 52