Book Review: Lovers Lame (Robert Rudney)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
In the last few years several quality novels by women writers with disabilities have appeared including Jillian Weise's The Colony, Terry Tracy's A Great Place for a Seizure and Christine Stark's Nickels. Each of these novels boasts protagonists with disabilities and a literary style that tries to counter the classic plot trajectory that leads to rehabilitation. While this may not constitute a literary spring for disabilities fiction, a least the first few blossoms are appearing. The pickings of novels by male writers with a disability are considerably slimmer. This being the case, Lovers Lame by Robert Rudney is both welcome and a candidate for considerable scrutiny.
Lovers Lame follows the life of David Allen Levin, a self-admitted curmudgeon with a condition similar to cerebral palsy, through several transformative years of his life. Written in classic narrative style, it is a tale in which the similarity between the protagonist's situation at the beginning and end of the novel belies the internal transformation that has taken place. It is also unapologetically didactic. Unlike Weise's or Stark's novels, which couple their educational agenda with post-modern techniques, Levin's narrative, while employing satire and striving to entertain, clearly wants the reader to know that the train they are riding carries some heavy freight.
As the book's title implies, and the narrator tell us directly in his apologia at the end of the first chapter, "Disability brought us together, and disability tore us apart…I'm still coming to terms with what happened." Like many writers, David's way of coping is to put it all down paper. Of the several possible trajectories a linear love story can take, this one is boy gets girl, boy loses girl. Knowing the plot in no way takes away from the enjoyment of reading the story.
As the novel opens David Levin is a disgruntled employee at the Energy Policy Center where he works as an editor. He is living with his upwardly-mobile girlfriend, Lisa, whom he also supervises at work. Then both shoes drop. He and Lisa come out on the short end of job cuts and Lisa, realizing that David has little motivation when it comes to searching for jobs, moves out on him. Much to his chagrin David finds himself at a federal employment workshop that he derides as "the job search workshop for cripples." Nevertheless, at the workshop he meets Ron a veteran who although a double amputee in a wheelchair has his head on much straighter than David. David's meeting with Ron sets up the trajectory for the remainder of the story and for David's growth as a human being.
Ron is organizing a pro-active group called Abilities. Not finding jobs falling in his lap, – or as David (who never misses a chance to put down those more successful than himself) puts it, "I was obviously not a virtuoso job networker like Lisa" – he reluctantly decides to attend. To his surprise, he begins to feel some affinity to the others there who also have disabilities and volunteers to be part of the organization. Ever on the lookout for women, David also spies a young woman named Jessica with no visible disability, whom he immediately labels "the artsy type."
David's involvement with Abilities grows and so does his relationship with Jessica. Jessica, however, has multiple sclerosis and as the organization's health grows, hers declines. As an artist, Jessica has always been a "free spirit" who values independence and freedom from commitment, but after an episode of MS exacerbation, she accepts help from David. This leads to a sexual – and from David's point of view – romantic relationship in which everyone begins viewing them as a couple. Together with Ron, they begin building Abilities into a bona fide organization.
Just as Abilities is poised to receive funding and become a viable center it is déjà vu all over again for David. Ron is hospitalized and dies, leaving Abilities leaderless. Jessica's MS begins progressing rapidly and, on a trip to France, he discovers that despite her genuine feeling for others and her sense of humanity, she is simply not able to maintain a monogamous relationship. This time, however, David is able to rise to the occasion. He delivers Ron's eulogy and secures the grant that allows a center to open in Ron's name. He and Jessica split up, but with his newfound experience, David is able to find work in an organization where he can be helping others.
Onto the framework of this tale Rudney scaffolds what he wants the reader to learn about disability and the societal issues that people with disabilities have to negotiate. He does this by two often conjoined means, thinly disguised pedagogy and satire. These are techniques that take skill to manage. The former risks pedanticism, the later can devolve into sarcasm.
The scenes in which Rudney depicts meetings of the Abilities group provide some of the best examples of the novel's impulse for instruction. Though it is rare in real life to be at a meeting in which each person involved has a different disability, this is exactly the situation at the initial Abilities meeting.
Ron quickly introduced me to the others: Jerry Brandt from the Blind Association, Peter Hermannson from
Advocates in Wheelchairs, Sandra Staley from the Washington Multiple Sclerosis Association and Antonia Johnson from Living with
This set up gives Rudney a chance to comment on and illustrate the diverse needs of the varied disabilities. Typical of those attending the meeting is a man described as"tall, rather stout, balding, dressed in jeans and a Yankees sweatshirt."
"I'm Fred Hutchins" he began. "Before I developed my bipolar condition, I was a senior account executive at Xerox. I handled several million dollars in accounts and managed 20 people. But that was several years ago. Now I'm on SSDI but I'm working with my therapist and want to get back in the job market. I just don't know how to start. I can't go back to what I was. Even if I could, it would just kill me. It almost did several years ago."
Not only are the meetings attendees representative of specific disabilities, they also double as representatives of certain viewpoints. Peter, for example, is a stand in for the radical disabilities activist who disbelieves anything any authority figure says. He is impressed with his own opinions and never willing to take a pragmatic approach for fear of compromise. The problem with such stock characterization – now as it was in the old morality plays – is that it is difficult for such conceptual incarnations to transition from caricature to character. Peter never makes that transition, and David, Jessica and Ron all struggle to do so.
From the days of Aristophanes, satire is a time-honored form of social criticism and as the past president of EXCEL!, a disability self-help group in the Washington D.C. area, Rudney has plenty of fodder for criticism when it comes to employment opportunities for people with disabilities. With David as his narrator, however, this is no easy task. Despite his statement that as a child "I was never allowed to wallow in my disability," David's opinions of others seem invariably tinged with resentment and self-pity. He particularly resents his brother Ted, whom he describes as a "hot shot tennis player, social butterfly, new California entrepreneur and proud father … somewhere in the suburban wastes of Southern California." Unsuccessful in heterosexual relationships, he also resents women. However, when David can keep the vinegar from being obvious, he can be right on target as in his deadpan observation that, "The main purpose of public hearings was not to embarrass either agency." He can actually be at his wittiest when he turns his wit against himself. After one blind date, he observes:
My inimitable charm grows on people; it's not apparent in a 'first impression' context. In other words, I struck out big time. I haven't yet found a blind date dorky enough to immediately appreciate my manifold hidden talents.
David's ambivalent attitude towards women highlights a problem for Rudney as novelist that differs from that faced by Weise, Tracy and Stark whose protagonists are women. How does a man with a disability manage to be viewed as masculine? To Rudney's credit, he does not have David pull off any acts of heroism. David does not defy the odds and win "the big race" or catch a boat for the Antarctic hinterlands. What he does, however, is to fall into the stereotype of American masculinity by viewing every woman on two feet – literally – as a prospective sexual conquest. Perhaps this makes him a "red-blooded male" but it also devalues women. One would think that having a disability himself and knowing how it feels to be passed over, he would not carry this kind of bias against others. This is middle class thinking, though, and anyone who has spent time on the margins of society knows that being the object of prejudice oneself in no way ameliorates a person's prejudice against others.
Perhaps the most well written – and certainly the most poignant – scene in Lovers Lame occurs when a woman named Sonia, whom David has been counseling, shows up at his apartment. Sonia has very visible cerebral palsy and is dressed as though for the dance of her life. She confides to David that she has never even been kissed by a man and is desperate to know for once in her life what it feels like. Suddenly for David, the shoe is on the other foot. David admits, "I knew how hard it must have been for her to come to my apartment, how much nervous energy she expended to push herself on me." He gives her a perfunctory kiss and when she asks David to go to bed with her he is in a total dither, uttering every platitude that he has been the subject of in his life and probably a few more. When David frees himself from her grasp and offers to drive her home, she calls a cab.
Sonia didn't say a thing. The cab pulled up and she yanked her hand free of my grasp. I moved to the car door, but she motioned with one crutch for me to remain still. When she was settled in the back seat of the cab, she rolled down the window and glared at me. Her lips struggled to form the words. "Go…fuck…your…self…Da…vid."
Whether or not David has learned anything himself from the episode is not discoverable in the rest of the book. It is an isolated incident. David never sees her again. As he remarks, "Sonia was my own little secret." Nevertheless, Rudney deserves credit for bringing this complex issue to the table.
It is not surprising that the first fiction by writers with disabilities is semi-autobiographical. This was the case with African-American writers, Asian-American writers and most other minority groups that tried to break into mainstream American writing. Certainly this is true of disability novelists like Anne Finger and Jillian Weise or short story writers like Floyd Skloot and Thom Jones. The short bio on the back of Rudney's book suggests that to some extent this is the case with Lovers Lame as well. As already mentioned, Rudney's own experience surely provides the grist for some of the episodes of the book that deal with organization for employment advocacy. Grounding in real experience lends the work an authority that a mainstream writer tackling the same situations would lack. On the other hand, it also carries with it the tendency of an author to be a little too close to his protagonist, especially when written in the first person as first novels tend to be, and there at times in the novel when the reader wonders if Rudney is not just a little too invested in David. Rather than make the mistake of identifying the voice of the narrator with the author (a phenomenon poets are quite familar with), readers will have to wait for Rudney's next novel to make that judgment.
While it may not seem so to the casual reader, Lovers Lame is likely to catch some flack from the Disability Studies movement (and not principally because of Rudney's portrayal of Peter). While the novel is ostensibly about the importance of people with disabilities organizing, in its self-help emphasis, it also tacitly accepts an individualistic philosophy. True, Jessica comes to discover that she cannot go it alone forever, but the problem still remains her problem. This runs counter to the more recent currents in which, though impairment may be individual, disability itself is a social construct and progress will only come about through systemic change – meaning communal responsibility at a national level. The philosophy that emerges from Lovers Lame is a bit closer to "I get by with a little help from my friends." Given the current political climate, it's also a philosophy with a lot of support &emdash; one likely to remain alive and well for some time.
Breaking new ground is by definition never easy, even when one sticks with time honored-structures of narration, as Lovers Lame does. Rudney's novel has much to recommend it. It's main success may be in serving as a primer to the world of disability. Anyone finishing the novel would have a hard time thinking, "all crips are alike." Beyond that, it is an enjoyable read. Despite conventional wisdom, humor is difficult to pull off. Just as not everyone thinks Adam Sandler is funny, not everyone is going to find themselves laughing at Rudney's style of humor, but he spreads around the targets of his jibes enough that nearly every reader will find something that resonates. David's world is an interesting one and knowing ahead of time that this is a story of love lost, readers will also be curious to know just why it does not work out. Even it if is just because they enjoy getting annoyed (and perhaps perplexed) with David's male chauvinism, few readers are likely to come away without having been glad they read the book. Lovers Lame was published in 2012 and is available from BookLocker.com