REVIEW: 'I Was There the Night He Died,' by Ray Robertson

  • Article by: SARAH STONICH , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 10, 2014 - 2:42 PM

BOOK REVIEW: A widower takes time to finish his novel while caring for his aging, infirm father.

“I Was There the Night He Died,” by Ray Robertson

Problems increasingly familiar to baby boomers embroider Ray Roberston’s “I Was There the Night He Died” (Biblioasis, 288 pages, $16.95) — aging and ill parents; the prevalence of Alzheimer’s; difficult relatives, and the attendant duties of ushering them out of this world, respectfully disposing of their possessions and homes. Self-absorbed novelist Sam Samson has taken on such tasks, back “home” in working-class Chatham, a few hours west of his adopted Toronto.

Still mildly grieving his wife, Sara — the victim of a car accident the year before — Sam might as well treat his time in Chatham like a writer’s retreat and finish his latest novel, mostly to do with dead musicians of the twangy bluegrassy ilk, with soulful bits a la Janis Joplin thrown in. When not writing, he hangs out with a new neighbor, self-medicating teenager Samantha, a cutter and stoner dealing with her own grief for a dead mother and a father dulling his pain with booze.

Sam wades into tepid relationship waters with formerly stout, now-hot classmate Rachel, but an exchange in which she’s critical of the voice of Tom Waits almost immediately stamps her as a future-ex-girlfriend.

Stories about writers can be discomfiting. Sam is watching a documentary on television with Rachel when inspiration strikes:

“A somber British voice explains exactly how bears are taught to ‘dance’: how music is played while the metal floor underneath them is heated enough to burn their feet, compelling them to hop from foot to foot, thereby guaranteeing that when the same music is played again later they instinctively hop about, hoping to avoid the remembered pain.

“ ‘My God, that’s terrible,’ Rachel says, sitting back down. ‘I had no idea.’

“ ‘I’ve got to write this down,’ I say, pulling the pen and notepad out of my pocket.

“ ‘Why would you write something like that down?’

“ ‘So I won’t forget it.’

“ ‘It’s terrible. It’s worse than terrible.’

“ ‘I know. And it’s a terribly powerful metaphor, too.’

“ ‘A metaphor for what?’

“ ‘I don’t know yet. I’ll know it when I find it. And when I do, I don’t want to forget.’ ”

A reader being privy to the machinations of a writer’s process can be like visiting the butcher on sausage day — do you really want to know how it’s made?

As it turns out, Uncle Donny has purloined funds from his brother, Sam’s Dad — known only as “Dad,”as if his identity has diminished along with his faculties. The bill at the nursing home is $15,000. Sam has yet to reveal the plot of his book, or where that dancing-bear metaphor might fit, but he does finish the manuscript around the time his father dies in a most convenient fashion, without any fuss, the best death to be hoped for.

Sarah Stonich is the author of “Vacationland” and “These Granite Islands.” She lives in Minneapolis.

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