In ‘Morningside Heights,’ Illness Tests a Mind and a Marriage

As Spence’s Alzheimer’s progresses, many people leave the constellation of the Robins’ marriage, but a few enter or return, notably a prickly but stalwart Jamaican caretaker and her chess-playing hemophiliac son, whose life goal is to cure hemophilia so that he can get a tattoo, and Arlo, Spence’s son from a brief and unhappy early marriage. Arlo’s childhood involved being dragged around the country by his monstrously selfish mother (a tragically ungifted midwife at times, a light-fingered bakery employee at others), his dyslexia unnoted and his education ignored. An adolescent attempt to live with his father, stepmother, and half sister, Sarah (now a medical student), was not a success either, but in adulthood this lost lamb has at least found a flock of like-minded souls (they work at a place called Yahoo, out in California).

Still, Spence’s son cannot precisely rejoin the family, even under the circumstances; he can only manage to turn up unexpectedly and leave before anyone notices he’s gone, surprising Sarah on her college campus or offering access to an experimental Alzheimer’s drug, only to retreat. Arlo is too much like his father to finally connect, but watching the two of them try — again and again — provides some of the novel’s many grace notes.

Henkin’s portrayal of Spence and Pru’s academic and careful marriage unfolds from the physical connection of a professor-grad student courtship (no hand-holding permitted above 59th Street, in case someone from the English department happened to cross paths with them; then, as the affair deepens, no hand-holding above, progressively, 72nd, 96th and 110th Streets) to Spence’s gradual departure from his own body, leaving behind something “laid out like a piece of veal.” Henkin is a fine writer with a wry fondness for his characters, but like any New Yorker he knows how to keep a safe distance. The specific letting-go that all New Yorkers must master if we don’t wish to be crippled by nostalgia — especially now, if we do hope to see our city’s resurgence — is particularly nuanced when a city neighborhood is also a college town, but Henkin more than meets this challenge.

Pru, walking the deeply familiar streets alone, acknowledges the ghosts lurking behind the storefronts, both the neighborhood’s and her own: “Past Koronet Pizza she went; past Famiglia, past the West End Bar, though it, too, was long gone now. Past the old chocolate store, which had been there so long it might have been formed from the primordial muck. And, finally, the corner of 116th Street, where Chock Full o’ Nuts used to be. It was the Chinese place now, where the college kids went for takeout.” When I moved home to my ancestral isle of Manhattan, eight years ago, I lived a stone’s throw from that corner. By then, Chock Full o’ Nuts was long gone, but the Chinese place — Ollie’s — was in full swing. Only it’s a Shake Shack now. And so it goes.

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