If Jill McCorkle had to sum up her new novel, the description would go something like this: It aint over til its over.
Trust McCorkle, author of six novels and four short story collections, to get right to the big, generous heart of Life After Life (Algonquin, $24.95), a book set in the Pine Haven retirement center in Fulton, N.C., that accomplishes the most miraculous of feats its not unbearable or painful or depressing. Its poignant, occasionally sad, but undeniably full of life and possessing an almost practical approach to death. As one character observes: The pain of losing people you love is the price of the ticket for getting to know them at all.
McCorkle has a vivid sense of humor which you know if youve read her work and she is not one to dwell on the grim.
Even at the height of dementia, people have these clear little vivid windows of memory, and there are times when the person youve always known is there, says the author of The Cheer Leader, Carolina Moon, Tending to Virginia and Ferris Beach. She appears Monday at Books & Books in Coral Gables.
I grew up with a lot of elderly relatives. Ive spent so much of my life in and out of these places, and theres still a lot of life going on there. For all the sadness and grief that you witness, you also witness a lot of joy. Theres a lot of humor, too.
McCorkle, who has been to Miami before you may have seen her a few years ago at Miami Book Fair International, reading her hilarious story Me and Big Foot from Going Away Shoes uses the community of nursing home residents to fill out her story. Theres Sadie, widowed early, kind and generous, who uses glue and photos and scissors to allow her fellow residents to travel to foreign shores or back in their memories; crafty Stanley, whos faking his dementia in hopes the freedom will force his troubled adult son to live his own life; and Rachel, the lone Northerner, driven south by a secret in her past.
Also figuring prominently are C.J., a tattooed, pierced single mom who does manicures at the home; 12-year-old outcast Abby, whose best friend is her missing dog; and Joanna, the hospice worker who records the hopes and dreams of the dying. She had matchbooks from every nice restaurant she had ever gone to. Her favorites were Tavern on the Green and Windows on the World, she writes of one beloved resident. When told both restaurants were gone, she held a firm position that she still needed to go there. The notebook entries simply and eloquently capture the elements that make up a life matchbooks and fish hooks, pets and children, roses and wine.
McCorkle had been taking the notes that would become Life After Life since her father died 20 years ago. She talked with hospital and hospice workers and ordered the texts used in training volunteer hospice workers to get a sense of what Joannas duties would be.
Shes able to take a subject that most writers could not find the wonder in and find wonder in that world, a world of people who are slowly losing themselves, says novelist, short story writer and fellow North Carolinian Ron Rash, author of the novels Serena and The Cove and the story collection Nothing Gold Can Stay. When I read it, it struck me how incredible it was for a writer to do this. I dont think I could do it. But she has the talent. ... its a book that my one fear would be people saying, I cant read that, but I would argue that anybody who reads it, if theyve been through this situation, it will make them feel better in a real deep sense.
McCorkle, who lives in Hillsborough, N.C., and teaches writing at North Carolina State University, feels that way, too. Her mother has dementia, and shes a believer in finding reasons to laugh in hard circumstances.
You have to be able to do that in order to get through it, she says. I would even argue that the ability to find humor enables you to step closer to what is sad and heartbreaking.
When my dad died, it was a life-changing moment. One minute youre sitting there, and this person is in the room. The next, theyre gone. As a young person, you imagine life will yield to difficult situations, and it doesnt at all. The bills keep coming. My kids were little then, and I still had to fix lunch. You have to go to work. I was amazed I could grieve and continue all of lifes activities at the same time. But mostly, I could not stop imagining what was going through my dads mind.
Still drawn to that line between life and death, McCorkle says shed like to go through the volunteer training for hospice work someday.
I think the thing that struck me when I was reading one of the books is where youre trying to engage memories, when a patient is still able to talk, and youre trying to engage them in a way that keeps them front and center, she says. Its the art of trying to be there and supportive without imposing anything. It struck me that that is what a good writer should do as well.