A couple of years ago the author John Nichols promised he would write only two more books and both of them would be about the length of An Elegy for September. I came across this info-tidbit recently and, owning a signed copy of An Elegy for September, pulled it off the shelf. It is a small, relatively brief book—for Nichols—and I am still not sure whether it qualifies as nonfiction or fiction. But let’s honor the writer whose raw material is always the stuff of sensory experience and a life and call it what he does—a novel.
Nichols lives in Taos, New Mexico and so does his unnamed protagonist. He owned, for many years, a small adobe with some land and a converted chicken coop to which he retired daily to write. He gave the house, land and writing studio to his second wife in a divorce settlement. So does the character in the book. It would be tempting to see this as thinly-disguised autobiography but An Elegy for September is something else entirely, a meditation on life, love and loss of every kind. It is funny in the zany way Nichols can be funny, and raunchy in a rather predictable middle-aged male preoccupation with nubile young things. Eh. The fragile heart, the lusty loins, the uninhibited fan–the fan has her own identity problems.
But, tired athletic fantasies aside, it is in most ways a lovely book, embracing the beauty of the mesa and the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the frisson of excitement in a brief affair with a besotted, extemely free young writer, the sorrow at giving away a home that is really a collection of dreams and memories, the ambivalence about aging and the curtailment of possibility.
The writer and his college-age lover tramp across the landscape, she scampering ahead, he worried about his fibrillating heart and aching legs. He teaches her, at her insistence, to shoot and she takes down a protected red hawk which infuriates him. He forgets age and infirmity fly-fishing in a mountain stream for hours while she observes his fluid casting, fascinated. They have sex in a battered pick-up in the middle of a fierce hail and lightning storm that scares the bejeezus out of both of them. They have sex a lot in all sorts of places, actually. Although she points out frequently that he is old enough to be her father, she is the pursuer, jumping his bones at every opportunity.
Laced in and out of encounters with age and youth are the memories of good and bad times with the lush, insecure and overbearing soon-to-be-ex-wife, gorgeous descriptions of the splendid panoramas the writer inhabits, treasured moments with an older, dying friend as the writer reads to him in Spanish and his breath slows and stops.
The girl wants him to commit to loving her—she proposes dropping out of college for a semester to stay in Taos, writing her novel and getting it on with her novelist. The writer takes the measure of his faltering heart and pulls away, turns to her, pulls away again. He is in love with life, landscape, scribbling and scrapping words, sex, and a kind of honor that refuses to ignore her exuberant youth and his inflexible age. Should infirmity trump intimacy? Is his experience any match for her enthusiasm? Must he resolutely face the sunset, even as she offers him a way to turn back the day to the clarity of morning?
Elegy is a lament but not a dirge. It moves gracefully through a September as the light fades and chill overtakes the bones. It is a summing up, a reminiscence, a tribute to the impulse and intention that make a life. Nichols has burnished his raw material into a lithe narrative that seems simple but is densely packed with big questions: How do we choose to remember? How do we locate ourselves in our own stories? How do we let go?
Elegy for September John Nichols | Henry Holt 1992