In her poignant new book "The Dependents," debut novelist Katharine Dion adeptly — and often poetically — explores serious topics like grief, friendship and how to know whether one's life has had meaning.
Here & Now's Robin Young talks with Dion about the book, which makes for a memorable summer read thanks to its quirky characters, interesting relationships and expressive writing.
by Katharine Dion
His wife had died in June and there was to be a memorial service for her in two weeks, at the end of the summer. Gene’s daughter had come out from California with his granddaughter to help make the arrangements, and he found himself dismayed by his general helplessness, which was not exactly the same as resenting what his daughter did for him, but the feelings existed along the same continuum. He hadn’t been able to find his swim trunks that morning, so he was wearing a pair of pants Dary had chopped off at the knee. She had cut them unevenly and the left side hung lower than the right, in a skew of brown corduroy fringe dampened by sweat against his slack thigh.
He was also wearing real shoes, probably the only person on the entire beach. A bulky pair of sneakers made of foam and glue, the sort that older people were punished with and expected to submit to meekly, as if they were no longer discerning. On Dr. Fornier’s recommendation Dary had driven all the way out to the freezing mall, the one with the potted palms, because it was easier to do something for his weak ankles than his grief. He had fought only a little about whether he would wear them, because when he and Dary had started to bicker, his ten-year-old granddaughter had shouted from the back seat of the car, “If you’re going to fight, leave me home!”
Now Annie was playing down the beach with a group of boys and girls who were stillunselfconscious about being a group of boys and girls who played with one another. Dary had gone to get her because they were going to meet the Donnellys at the miniature golf course. He had little interest in miniature golf, but as long as his daughter was in town it seemed that he was a type of appendage to her, expected to go where she went unless she made other arrangements for him. He had promised to meet up with his daughter and grand-daughter later, and they had left him behind with their towels thinned by too much washing and a single glass jug filled with what was now very warm water.
The beach was crowded, a cluttered heap of pink skin, chipped toenail polish, ice chests, crumpled tin foil, silver cans wearing coats of sand halfway up their sides, shovels and buckets in primary colors, and striped umbrellas that stammered in the uncool breeze. A group of teenage girls had established a colony nearby. They were arrayed on their stomachs in a line surrounded by the incredible amount of stuff that had come out of their bags, the water bottles, energy bars, sun lotions, women’s magazines, hairbrushes, inflatable pillows, diet sodas, reed mats, and radios. At times they would roll over each other like seals to point out something in one of the magazines, and from them arose a collective shriek that he vaguely recognized as a form of laughter.
Not far from them a good-looking youngish man with bronzed forearms was helping a little girl build a sandcastle with multiple towers and walkways. Whenever the man did something that pleased the little girl, she cried out, “Mommy, look what Roy did!” Then a woman sitting just beyond them with a puppy in her lap would gaze up at Roy with an expression of complete contentment, and she would lift the pudding-fleshed puppy so it too could gaze on Roy with dumb bliss. She was older than Roy but aggressively attractive; her swimsuit squished the tops of her breasts into little meat pies above the elastic. It was difficult to tell how long she and Roy had been together, and whether he had been inaugurated already into a fatherly role or was merely auditioning.
Gene’s interest in other people lay primarily in the mystery of their happiness. Happy children, happy parents tending happy children and small animals—had they always been such evangelists of joy? He now reserved a special kind of misery for the sight of a happy couple. This particular human configuration seemed to have been invented to draw out the despair in everyone else.
A scrum of ball-playing men moved up and down the beach, spreading out and coalescing an expansive territory. You could smell them before they passed by and again afterward, a mass of warm air cabbagey with sweat. Even men who didn’t play sports in their regular lives, the ones with the narrow bony chests white as the bite inside a pickle—even they would play with a ball at the beach. Every now and then, when they stampeded across a blanket, some lifeguard would stand up and bullhorn about it.
When Gene was in college the lifeguards on this beach had been lazy party boys, scornful of enforcing rules made by somebody else, especially the state of New Hampshire. On their breaks they smoked cigarettes and sipped beer from
bottles in paper bags. But something had changed. Now the beach seemed part of a larger state public service effort to deliver a serious message about health and safety. Last summer, a mobile health clinic had been stationed in the parking lot and to get to the beach you had to pass cheerful volunteers in matching T-shirts, handing out flyers promising various free screenings. It had been one of the last memorable fights between him and Maida, a fight that began when one of the volunteers asked if she could give them a flyer and Maida said yes and he said no. Maida took the flyer and read aloud about the screenings as they stumped over the dunes and he was aware of the way his No had sharpened her Yes, had made it oppositional. “They’re free,” Maida said. “Why not?” But nothing was free and he said so.
Maybe if they had left off there, sparring halfheartedly about money, he would have forgotten the argument by now. Instead they jumped tracks and the argument became about what it was or wasn’t useful to know. If you could know something, Maida said, she didn’t understand why you wouldn’t choose to know it. “Not knowing won’t save you,” she said, at a moment when neither of them knew she would die the next summer. Instead, he had taken a certain needling pleasure in assailing her logic. He pointed out that no test would be able to tell him precisely when he would die, or provide the details for how the how would unfold. The tests would only increase his fear, which in his estimation was generally worse than pain of a physical kind. “For a smart person,” Maida said, “sometimes you aren’t.”
Now he picked his way down to the water through a maze of blankets, discarded cups, and scavenger birds. Airy tangles of dark seaweed crisped by the sun nested in the indentations in the sand, trapping small bits of litter, froth, and shells—mostly surf clams but also some mussels. When he was ten years old, the year his father died, Gene had gone to the beach for a week with his father’s family—the French-speaking aunts, uncles, and cousins who came from the same small town in Canada— and his cousins had told him the secret that if you held a seashell to your ear, the ocean would speak to you. All that week he collected horse mussels, dog winkles, and moon snails, and after he had rinsed them off he tested each one, thinking that if he found the right tiny, smooth, hollowed-out body and held it to his ear, he might hear instead of the cry of the ocean, the voice of his father. It astonished him that even now, more than sixty years later, he couldn’t see a seashell without experiencing the flicker of an urge to pick it up, in case the shell was the one that would return his father to him.
A woman in a sun hat and slacks sauntered toward him along the edge of the surf. Some aspect of her gait triggered a flash of recognition, and the seas inside his cells rose in response. For a fleeting moment the woman was Maida. But when she came nearer, the illusion was shattered. Her face, her expression, was wrong, and she was round in the places where Maida was trim. Yet even after the illusion had been dispelled there remained in him a reckless hope that his wife was alive somewhere, that the person who had died in the hospital wasn’t her, and that the real Maida was making her way back to him somehow.
There were things he hadn’t told her. Like how a week after their fight about the free screenings he had gone back to the mobile health clinic. He wanted to say he had gone back out of devotion to her, out of the kind of love that is a radical openness to someone else’s ideas, but the truth was closer to something like superstition. After you had talked so much about the idea that there might be something wrong with you, it took on a fatalistic dimension. On some level he believed that if he emphatically refused the screenings, the universe would punish him. He went back for the free blood-pressure and diabetes screenings, and then—because the frowning stethoscoping doctor recommended it—he paid for an EKG that revealed an irregular heart rhythm. Except the doctor wouldn’t tell him what was wrong with him and would recommend only that he see his regular doctor. But by the time the appointment with Dr. Fornier came around, Gene was having trouble with his ankles, and he was relieved to allow this to become the all-consuming problem.
There were also things he hadn’t asked Maida. Like if it had been, on the whole, a happy life. He didn’t mean the outward life, but the life within the life. The tucked-away life, secret even to oneself most of the time. Had it been happy enough?
A wave, leaping out of nowhere, crashed against his feet. The water coursed over the tops of his shoes, penetrating the webbing. He waded in and the chill grabbed at his corduroys. His body convulsed in the strange liquid way it always did when the water approached his navel.
There were people who told him his grief would diminish, but he didn’t believe them. That his father’s death was still an experience reverberating inside him after all these years suggested that the distance a person traveled from death was just along a circle, and all it took was one new loss to show you that you were still traveling the same line. Only now he was older and more broken down and less able to absorb the devastation. Because there was only so much room inside the body to accommodate all the deaths you had to accommodate to go on living.
A wave flung toward him and broke against his chest, splashing water in his face. He tasted the blunt gift of its salt, the roughness cutting into his nose and mouth. Then the ocean reeled back, spinning, a membrane pulled in every direction, sucked low and flat by a deep inner drain.
Excerpted from the book THE DEPENDENTS by Katharine Dion. Copyright © 2018 by Katharine Dion. Republished with permission of Little, Brown and Company.
This segment aired on July 19, 2018.