The Half-Life of Happiness by John Casey

Alfred A. Knopf 1998 513 pp. 25.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


John Casey's fine new novel traces the emotional and professional lives of a group of close friends. Although peopled with dancers and filmmakers, the story is not so much about how powerful emotions recollected in tranquility can be shaped into art, but how potent passions carry within them the power to shape the arc of our lives.

Charlottesville, Virginia, 1978: Mike Reardon and Joss Rogers, both children of East Coast patrician families, have settled down in this liberal, academically oriented community. Mike practices law, but was drawn to Charlottesville, " the great good place," at the behest of Joss, who saw the town as an fruitful place to devote herself to filmmaking. Married twelve years, they have two young daughters, the socially facile and extoverted Nora, and the more inwardly directed Edith.

Having bought a spread in the countryside with three dwellings, Mike and Joss have rented one house to Edmond, a Fish and Wildlife employee, and Evelyn, a veterinarian; the other to Tyler and Bonnie, both university professors.

Mike is happy enough in his small-town practice, away from the stresses of life inside the Beltway, and Joss, despite "her wobbly-eyed hyperventilating spells," has established a place to develop her films, short, heavily feminist satires.

"They were post-Depression babies. They were war bonds and victory gardens. Victory in Europe, victory over Japan. They were the UN, the Marshall Plan, and penicillin-and more victories, over McCarthyism, segregation, and polio. They came from bright benevolent America. It was no wonder they'd believed in throwing themselves into the current, no wonder they had sweet silly senses of humor, no wonder they said yes more often than no."

Their sleepy existence would have continued were it not for the sexually adventurous Bonnie, who seduces a drunken Joss. They begin a passionate-and secret-affair. Their love remains clandestine until Mike agrees to accept the Democratic bid for the Thirteenth Congressional District. Amid a brutal five-month campaign, Joss and Mike have to deal with their collapsing marriage and Mike's suddenly renewed libido.

The book falls into three parts: the events leading up to the love affair, the political campaign, and a shortish section at the end detailing a cross-country car trip taken by Edith and Nora twenty years after the events of the first part of the narrative. Told in third person, the novel's point of view shifts periodically to an adult Edith, herself a teacher, who tries to grapple with her childhood experiences.

She comes to realize that "the last scene of certain happiness becomes the first scene of uncertainty. It's then that beauty and happiness and love become separated. It's then that each acquires a shadow and each shadow has the power to make me think that beauty, happiness, and love are only thoughts. Until then I thought they were something better-elements of the universe like light and gravity. I'd thought they were better than us. I must have known something, because that was the day I began to think that they're just us."

At more than five hundred closely spaced pages, the book's pacing is nothing if not stately. The reader should be warned that the characters alternate between quoting Kierkegaard to each other and comparing their plight with that of Wile E. Coyote. Given its length and leisurely pace, Casey could have spent some more time developing the secondary characters. Edmond, Evelyn and Tyler, in particular, remain oblique. And after considerable talk about Joss' films, the reader finally spends an evening in a theater with them. Even for the mid-1980s these films seem stuck in a '70s feminist approach to gender. Despite her complex psyche and verbal facility, Joss' views seem remarkably unsophisticated.

Fans of Updike and Cheever will recognize the emotional and demographic territory of this book: members of the upper middle class trying to come to terms with their emotional lives, where repression doesn't seem to suffice as a method for dealing with untidy emotions, and where the cushion of a quality education and a comfortable background are insufficient preparation for the storms of approaching middle age.

Finally, the conscientious reviewer must note one glaring error in this book, perhaps excusable coming from an East coast author. On page 486 we read that "Oklahoma looked like Texas." One hopes for a caring Texan friend who will disabuse him of this grievous inaccuracy.

Casey, winner of the 1989 National Book Award for Spartina, has produced a subtle, quiet examination of our emotional geography. Seeing our lives from the perspective of a certain age, we can create "a chamber out of shared memory and love in which someone else holds your attention and attends to you. In that fragile chamber you can keep the ghosts you love, not just their rights and wrongs, but the savor of their lives."