At the start of Roger King’s remarkable autobiographical novel, “Love and Fatigue in America,” his unnamed narrator is at the top of his game. He’s 43 years old, well-traveled, educated, British, attractive to women and opportunity alike. He’s also headed for a fall from which he never quite regains the full extent of his powers.
"Love and Fatigue in America," by Roger King. Terrace Books/Imprint of University of Wisconsin Press. Madison, Wis., 2012. 271 pages. $26.95.
At the start of Roger King’s remarkable autobiographical novel, “Love and Fatigue in America,” his unnamed narrator is at the top of his game. He’s just signed a contract for another book, BBC wants him to produce a screenplay, he has a promising girlfriend and a new job teaching at a college in Spokane, Wash. He’s 43 years old, well-traveled, educated, British, attractive to women and opportunity alike. He’s also headed for a fall from which he never quite regains the full extent of his powers.
The narrator’s troubles start with a fever and bout of dizziness at the gym. He can barely get himself home. Eventual diagnosis: myalgic encephalopathy — ME disease, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome. It’s one of those invisible illnesses, like MS, that can engender impatience and disbelief rather than compassion or nurturing behavior from others. If he weren’t so incapacitated, perhaps he, too, would question what had so thoroughly overcome him.
In the years covered in this book, the narrator leaves Spokane, moves to New Mexico, then on to San Francisco to teach again. When he leaves that position, it is with a “catastrophic leave of absence.” A subsequent road trip, conducted at very low ebb (he calls it “careful husbandry of my energy”), takes him on a roundabout tour of the United States. Eventually he makes a home in a small town in Western Massachusetts, five miles from a college, where he slowly finds a life for himself.
A life is something this narrator is always looking for before he comes to understand the following: “You must wait for it to come to you.” You cannot seize it, you cannot hurry it. This technique, he says, is also good for befriending dogs and children.
Though illness shapes “Love and Fatigue in America,” it is far from the only matter King examines. King is smart and funny. His unnamed narrator, not quite likable at first, grows on you in part because of his amusing observations about everything American from the pathetic state of health care to the way men cannot allow themselves to care for others to the surprising number of women he meets who have been subjected to violence, often by military men. King’s British background makes his examination of American culture especially interesting in contrast.
This is not a traditional novel. King sometimes makes lists, often very funny, one of which — all the medicines his character has taken — he tells us we don’t really have to read. “The Things They Say” is a list of people’s responses to his illness, such as:
Page 2 of 2 - “In the old days, we couldn’t afford to be ill.” “If people help you, it will only make you helpless.” “Just snap out of it.”
He also presents ideas expressed in free verse. In “Luck” he talks about all the good that has come his way and, still, he says, he’s found things about which he complained. Thus, he apologizes. By the time he pauses to examine his good fortune, however, he’s far from lucky. One million people have ME disease in America and he’s one of them.
He spends a good deal of the next decade on his back — in beds or on couches, in “energy-saver mode.” In New Mexico, he describes his life as “a bed at its center, a distant view, love surrounding.” This, it turns out, is a brilliant perspective from which to view and write about life.
The book is not traditional for other reasons. “Love and Fatigue in America” is an autobiographical novel, with King’s own experience with ME disease at the core. King’s neurological disease, with its disruption of memory, assures a certain re-imagination of events. Also, he changes names and allows his unnamed protagonist to serve as a filter through which the re-imagination occurs. King says that examination of brain activity by scientists reveals that the act of recall and the act of imagining are virtually indistinguishable.
King and his protagonist settle in America. “I liked America for the yes,” he writes. This can-do mentality is no doubt especially attractive to someone slowly recovering from a devastating illness.
Concluding chapters seem hurried when compared with the first three-quarters of the book. It’s understandable, since there’s probably a limit to readers’ patience. Yet, great reckonings unfurl in mere paragraphs. On the other hand, we are ready. The narrator is lucky once again. He is able to make some sense out of the life he lives on low ebb.
From the small town in which he’s staked his homestead, the narrator sees an America in decline, an America engaged in divisive activities not unlike what brought him to his own sick bed. Yet, as he looks around at the yoga, health foods, meditation and green initiatives, he says, “the ills of America are creating their own immune response.”
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in bookstores. Write her at email@example.com. Or read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.