All the Little Live Things
Posted by nliakos on February 13, 2012
by Wallace Stegner (Viking, 1967)
This was not my first Stegner novel; I read and enjoyed Angle of Repose and maybe also Crossing to Safety, if I remember well, back in the days of the West Riding Book Club. I like the way he writes very much; it’s a pleasure to read him.
The narrator of this fairly depressing novel is Joe Allston, who has retired to California with his wife Ruth. Their son, Curtis, died in a surfing accident; Joe is still nursing his disappointment in and anger at Curtis. Joe narrates the heartbreak of the past year: the destruction of the lovely hill they can see from their home by the owner who wants to develop it and make money; the hippie “student” who insinuates his way onto a piece of the Allstons’ land and then proceeds to turn it into a sort of free-love commune, mooching off the Allstons’ electricity and water and trashing their land; but most of all, the death of their neighbor Marian Catlin, who loves unreservedly “all the little wild things”, who radiates beauty and positive energy, who forgives everyone but who faces her death with courage and dignity–something Joe cannot do. He cannot accept her loss even though she has accepted it.
Joe’s reflections are starkly honest; he tells all, recognizing when he should have spoken or acted differently, recognizing when it is impossible for him to do what he knows he should do. These reflections made the book a sad read for me. I wanted Joe to be happier than he seemed capable of being. Approaching retirement myself, I couldn’t help thinking that the best planning cannot control all the inevitable annoyances and griefs that await us: the hostile neighbor, the hurtful thing we say without meaning to that alienates a friend, the decline and death of someone we love. Retirement, like life itself, is just more challenges and problems. We can’t escape them, no matter how we try.