Domestic life and familial grief have been the subjects of Joshua Henkin’s previous three novels: Swimming Across the Hudson (1997), Matrimony (2007), and the well-received The World Without You (2012), which was made into a movie of the same name a couple of years ago. Henkin lives in Brooklyn and directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College. His latest novel Morningside Heights, delayed from publication for one year because of COVID-19, is a tragedy in which a family copes with one member’s early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a gracefully written book, Henkin’s best so far, that manages to be emotionally moving, without being cloying or so overwhelmingly depressive as to be unreadable.
Professor Spence Robin is 59 when his wife Pru and their daughter Sarah finally take him to a neurologist who suspects that Spence is suffering from Alzheimer’s, but the doctor wants to rule out different kinds of dementia and other possible disorders—a brain tumor, thyroid problems, low levels of B12, and normal pressure hydrocephalus. Spence has been showing signs of the disease since he was 57, when he seemed to be less alert, needed more sleep, and started to forget ordinary things. Pru suspects she misread the signs Spence exhibited even before he was 57. Anyone with a relative or a friend who has Alzheimer’s knows that the disease can persist mercilessly, debilitating both the victim and the family; or it can kill quickly without much more mercy. When Pru explains that Spence is a professor and asks, “Doesn’t education protect you?” the doctor answers, “If you look at the overall population, it does, on average, seem to delay onset.” Still, because of Spence’s relatively young age, the doctor doesn’t want to advance a diagnosis immediately. Eventually, though, Henkin unfolds the drama of Spence’s deterioration and the emotional strain on his family with the inevitable false hopes that a few good days and lucid moments offer the family.
Henkin’s third-person narrative depicts Spence as a successful professional: a young “rock star” (though he objects to the term) of the Columbia English department. Yet, nearly from the beginning Henkin directly foreshadows Spence’s sickness: “Years later, when Spence got sick,” Henkin subtly forewarns the reader a few times; and he adroitly manipulates the reader into an understanding of the nature of Spence’s illness even before his family does.
Spence, whose given name is Shulem Zackheim, isn’t a traditional Jew. “His paternal grandfather had been a rabbi in Lithuania, but his parents’ god had been Communism. He hadn’t even been Bar Mitzvahed. One Yom Kippur, he’d gone to the Museum of Natural History to stare up at the great blue whale.”
Spence may not be much of a Jew, but Henkin’s fictional professor is quite renowned as a Shakespearean scholar at Columbia. He reminds me of the real-life James Shapiro. Spence has written several books on Shakespeare and Elizabethan literature: Beyond Verona: Shakespeare’s Politics and Poetics; When the Elizabethans Ruled: Marlowe, Jonson, and Shakespeare; The Gordian Knot: Shakespeare’s Early Sonnets; When There’s a Will, There’s a Way: Performance and Costume on the Elizabethan Stage, and Who Really Wrote Shakespeare? Shapiro's books include Rival Playwrights: Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare; Shakespeare and the Jews; Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?; and Shakespeare in a Divided America. Each professor has won his popularity on the strength of books for a general readership and his professional reputation on the strength of real scholarship. Both Shakespearean scholars have won Guggenheims, though Spence one-ups his real-life counterpart by winning the MacArthur: the genius grant.
Spence met his wife Pru Steiner at Columbia when she was working on her doctorate. It’s through Pru’s story, told in the third-person, that we first learn about Spence. Her story begins the novel. Pru grew up Orthodox in Ohio, attended a Jewish school, Torah Academy, which was “too small and too Jewish.” Later, she attended public high school, then Yale, which “seemed too big and not Jewish enough.” Most of her life, Pru dated older men. In seventh grade, she dated a tenth grader. In high school, she dated a guy who was about to graduate from Ohio State. In 1972, two months before Pru’s 18th birthday, she dated a grad student at Yale. When she was 22, she dated a 47-year-old. She did theater and tried to make it as an actor. At Columbia, Pru is again attracted to an older man, Spence, her teacher, though he’s only six years older than she is. They meet at Chock Full o’Nuts for bad coffee and, instead of talking about Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, they talk about their Jewish backgrounds. Pru finds Spence attractive and excitingly reckless because he rides a moped (a moped!—born to be mild) around the Morningside Heights campus. Anyway, she thinks he’s reckless, and, after discreetly seeing each other for a while, Spence asks Pru to marry him. Back in the 1970s things were a lot different when it came to dating students. Henkin reminds us of that, so we don’t think too harshly of Spence. Henkin writes:
“Years later Spence would say, ‘I can’t believe I dated my graduate student.’”
“‘Not only that, you married her.’” [Pru says]
But Pru didn’t think anything of it at the time. It was the 1970s, she thought, looking back: a decade when no one knew anything.
When Spence proposed to Pru, he admits to her that he has been married before to a woman named Linda. She dropped out of Barnard after six years of undergraduate, to follow Arlo Guthrie like Deadheads followed the Grateful Dead. Spence admits that he and Linda have a son who she has named after Arlo Guthrie. Arlo has lived with Linda and been homeschooled by his hippy mother for most of his childhood. But when Arlo is 15, Linda gets kicked out of the Delaware commune, which, after three years, Arlo learned to love. He decides to go to New York and stay with his father. New York is quite a shock to homeschooled Arlo, and so is the fact that he has a half-sister, Sarah, three years younger than he is. Sarah can’t believe how dumb Arlo seems to be. He cannot read well, has trouble with math, writing, history, geography, and biology. Turns out the kid is dyslexic.
But the two siblings tolerate and even like each other eventually. Sarah grows up to be a medical doctor; Arlo gets on track and becomes a wealthy entrepreneur. Despite all his money, Arlo can do little to help his father. And the royalties from Who Really Wrote Shakespeare? and the money from his MacArthur were all gone by the time Spence got sick.
Henkin’s story of one man’s up and down struggle with Alzheimer’s evolves into a story of not only personal and professional loss, but a story of complex family bonds—a drama fit for a Shakespearean scholar.