Closing Distance 1992 ISBN 0-399-13767-X
The Novels of Jim Oliver
Wings in the Snow 1998 ISBN 1-55583-462-0
Reviewed by Tony Heyes
Avid readers quite unreasonably expect their favourite authors to churn out books as fast as they can read them. There are those of us who find it hard to forgive Jane Austen for dying just as she was getting into her stride. Jim Oliver is, happily, still with us (in Hawaii) but lovers of his work will know that his novels are fewer than Miss Austen’s. Fortunately he more than makes up for this in quality.
The first novel of his I encountered, Closing Distance, is about a very successful florist, Pete Flowers, who is approaching his fortieth birthday. His mother Elizabeth has a brain tumour and, having realised that time is running out, confronts her son with his gayness and seeming lack of direction. She forces him to look at his unexamined life and do something with it before time runs out for him too. By the end of the book he has decided to get back with his former lover, Bill, and to be tested for HIV. Such are the bones of the story, but it is what Oliver does with it that is such a joy. All the characters, Pete’s parents and siblings, Bill and the maid Carmen are fully rounded figures whose lives all come under the microscope as Elizabeth battles with her illness and determines to carry on living as nearly a normal life as she can. The book is written with affection, wit and gentle humour and is one of those books that demand to be re-read to yield more treasures that may have been missed first time round. Oliver is a master of throwaway humour, refreshing in a time of frenetic campery. His handling of social embarrassment and the ambiguities of relationships is deft and amusing.
(On a personal note, I was puzzled by Elizabeth’s saying that Mabel Mercer always sang “bean” for “been” in Cole Porter’s Just One of Those Things. I put on a CD of her singing it and she pronounces it just as I do, as does everyone round here – but then, this is where she came from. I think Elizabeth means she didn’t pronounce it “bin”.)
Wings in the Snow follows a similar pattern to Closing Distance in that the main character, this time a surgeon called Theo Tithonus, is also forced to examine and put in order his life and repair his relationship with his lover, Sam. His crisis is precipitated by his medical partner unexpectedly dumping their daughter on him for a week. The child has been conceived by AID and has not, until now, been publicly acknowledged. Looking after the child causes Theo to come out, as Pete came out, and deal with the unresolved aspects of his life. Again, this is done with great humour. The relationship he has with his bossy sisters and the scene in the Ritz-Carlton in which Theo engages a junior colleague as an additional partner to relieve the pressure on his practice are beautifully understated comedy. The plot, rather than the characterisation, plays a bigger part in this second novel and some readers may think that the characters in both books inhabit too privileged a social stratum to know what “real” problems are. This is a debatable point but it enables Oliver, as it enabled Henry James, to concentrate on states of mind and emotions that we can all identify with. Both books are not only entertaining and thought-provoking, they are also extremely well-written and hugely enjoyable. I look forward to the next book with unbated breath!
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