The Tragedy of Circumstance in Pretend All Your Life

By Peter Damian Bellis

As the novel, Pretend All Your Life, opens, we are introduced to Richard Gallin, a wealthy plastic surgeon by all appearances, but his supposed riches are themselves a mask he wears for he is experiencing great financial difficulties, partially as a result of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers.

Gallin is described as “heavy and still—so rare for a man who had hustled his life away” (p. 9). He is unable to pursue his old desires, unable to bring “himself around to his old hungers” (p. 9). In this respect, he finds that he us cut off from himself, similar to the way that the character Keith in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man is cut off from himself in the aftermath of the attack on 9/11. This sense of being emotionally and psychologically isolated also reflects a spiritual isolation. Gallin possesses horny yellow feet, an allusion to some kind of demon or devil perhaps (indeed, at one point in the novel he thinks of himself as “a man of wealth and taste” (p. 59), an allusion perhaps to a line from the Rolling Stones song Sympathy for the Devil). His haphazard, shoeless appearance, which has been a part of his look for some months, presumably ever since the attack and the death of his son, Bernardo (who apparently died in the attack on 9/11), suggests that he is in between two very different realities. The narrator says: “He was still half-in, half-out” (p. 9). It becomes clear later on in the novel that the two realities are for Gallin the world of masks and illusions, which Gallin favors in the beginning; and the world where all illusions are stripped bare, where thought and action are the same thing.

On both a symbolic and a thematic level this novel is concerned with trying to determine which of these two worlds is good, and which is evil, and what making such a distinction means in terms of who we are, how we see ourselves and how others see us, and what we do. The answers to these questions, however, and the implications one can draw from these answers, is by no means cut and dried. Gallin’s father had once told him to “Pretend to be a thing all your life (hence the title), and at the end of your life that’s what you’ll have been—the thing you pretend to be” (p. 76). When he later discovers that Bernardo is still alive, he tells him “We just had to move a little forward, or pretend to move, that’s all” (p. 107). He also acknowledges that every appearance is really only “a promise to be as one seems” (p. 101). At the same time, he is constantly questioning what is real and what isn’t, and he understands that in society in general “there is some confusion about what evil is” (p. 17), a fact that would seem to suggest that even pretending has its risk, for what if you pretended to be the wrong thing.

An image central to this search to understand what is good and evil, and thus to understand one’s own self, is the image of the mask. The mask as symbol is also central to understanding the dilemmas faced by each character. In addition to Gallin, the novel also explores the lives of three other characters and their search for identity and meaning: Gallin’s son Bernardo, Miguel, a small time hoodlum who immigrated from Nicaragua, and Nick Adams (a nod to Hemingway which will be examined in greater depth a bit later on), the homosexual lover of Gallin’s former assistant. Even the minor characters, Andrea, Ana Garibaldi, even Lester Rhodes, all have masks they hide behind. But the book is mostly about Richard Gallin, so it is mostly about his mask and his search for identity, alternating with his commentary on society.

For Gallin, who owns a collection of West African tribal masks, the mask is a symbol of his own need to hide from himself and from others the fact that he no longer believes in anything; he has no faith in life, in fairness, in goodness, in the world. He has been suffering some sort of spiritual malaise since Bernardo’s supposed death, four months earlier. But the novel also suggests that he has been suffering from this kind of inner emptiness even longer. Several years earlier, for example, after his wife died, he gave a talk on the need to preserve cultures in the face of accelerated change. He spoke with passion and conviction. But during that same speech, he also said that “we should remember that the jury is still out on whether a thought had ever been bettered by an action on the thought’s behalf” (p. 67). The implication, of course, is that people have no real ability to effect positive change; they may wish for such change, but they can do nothing to bring it about. No wonder Gallin prefers the mask. On an intellectual plane, Gallin understands he is in trouble, but emotionally he is unable to do anything to change his circumstance, and it is because of his emotional dysfunction in the beginning of the novel that he lashes out at people for seemingly trivial reasons (his irritation with the way his secretary’s “pink gum slid out to the tip of her tongue and flitted as she spoke” (p. 12) is a case in point). Instead, Gallin remains behind his mask and lashes out at those who believe in something higher, better. He calls his secretary “a religious woman, a believer” (p. 11), but his attitude towards her ability to believe is one of thinly veiled sarcasm.

In spite of his need for this mask, however, Gallin is also trying to return to a time when things seemed normal, when Bernardo was alive, when perhaps his wife was still alive. And he seems to understand on some level that his need for a mask, symbolized by his African masks, is a barrier to this kind return or renewal. The fact that he has made an appointment for a curator named Ana Garibaldi to come look at his collection, to perhaps appraise its value, a path that will lead to the possibility of selling the collection, is a first tentative step towards this sense normalcy. But even so, for every step forward Gallin takes, he takes two steps backwards. When his girlfriend of the moment, Andrea, reminds him they are supposed to go to a New Year’s party and that he needs “to begin to socialize again” (p. 16), he retreats behind a mask of self-assumed isolation and superiority. From behind this mask he will conduct his own personal quest as he sees fit; and he will comment on the failings of a society where pretense is the general rule, without acknowledging that he is plagued by the same need for pretense, a fact made clear near the end of chapter one.

Lately, Gallin couldn’t get near a man without getting up his nose the stench of the man’s failure—his suppurating compromises, his dead passions and secret perversions. Everybody reeked. (p. 19)

That Gallin’s emotions are raw and undisguised are reasons why he exists in a state of social dysfunction, and why he finds it difficult to move on, for there is an immediate gratification and sense of power that comes from living in the emotional moment. Gallin prefers the emotion of the moment; it is just another mask he can hide behind. At the end of chapter one, Gallin and Andrea make love and Andrea is overcome with emotion. Gallin “felt powerful to have produced such emotion in her” (p. 20). After they have finished, he is watching part of a video of a boxing match in Atlantic City in which one of the boxers “killed his opponent with a right hook” (p. 20). Gallin, thinking about the journalists who wrote in the wake of the tragedy that boxing was barbaric and should be abolished, only laughed. “Gallin just wanted to see the punch” (p. 20).

And so from the first few chapters of Pretend All Your Life we can see that the story that is emerging is about two things. On a macro level it is about the nature of good and evil in a society where illusion often wins out over truth. And on a personal, human level, it is about the search to define what it means to be human in such a world.

Beneath the Veneer of Pretense

As in many post-modern novels of the last thirty years, the hidden psychological world that lies beneath the veneer of pretense is the world of Freud. There are suppressed sexual urges (Gallin suppressing a forbidden sexual desire for Kiran, the wife of his son, Bernardo; Kiran perhaps suppressing the same urge for Gallin, though this is from Gallin’s point of view), manic obsessions and sublimated passions (Nick seeking a lover’s revenge on Gallin when he really wants to achieve literary immortality), repression (many of the characters, and in fact the whole of New York, or at least those attending the New Year’s Eve party in chapter five, in dealing with the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the towers, not to mention the host of characters who believe that by altering their appearances through plastic surgery they can alter their circumstances), and even an Oedipal desire do away with fathers (Bernardo’s desire for a new face, which is also the face of his father, Gallin, Bernardo’s desire to start over again and cut himself off from both his father and his son). But unlike most post-modern fiction, Joseph Mackin’s characters are not trapped by the cynical irony that claims most post-modern characters. Though Mackin is certainly ironic to some degree in the way he exposes the vulnerabilities and truths, the lies and the illusions of his characters, he does so with a compassionate appreciation for honest human emotion, which gives to his world a vitality often missing from post-modern fiction that focuses on the uselessness of human action and endeavor and treats human emotion as something to mock, an attitude which thereby robs such books of any profound human meaning. Of course it may seem a bit of a contradiction to use the word “honest” when discussing the emotions of the characters in Pretend All Your Life, particularly given the level of pretense that exists in the world Mackin has created; however, the word “honest” is precisely the correct word. It is honest, raw, unmitigated emotion that drives the characters, however misguided.

Bernardo’s desire to start his life over, for example, is born of a need to reject the pretense that his life as a financial broker at Bentley had become. “The hero transcends his circumstances to become another, better man” (p. 76), Bernardo had told himself before he adopted the pretense that led to his financial success. But the cost was “to sublimate his intrinsic self” (the specter of Freud). Now, with everyone thinking him dead as a result of the attacks on the two towers, he has a chance to change the direction of his life. He can abandon the pretense of being an early riser interested almost exclusively in making money. The irony, of course, in his decision to abandon this pretense is multi-faceted. He is finally making a real attempt to transcend himself, giving a fuller meaning to his desire to become a better man articulated years earlier; and yet he needs the pretense of plastic surgery to bring about this transformation.

Similarly, both Miguel and Nick Adams are motivated by a rage buried beneath layers of psychological pretense. They both seek their version of the American dream. For Nick this dream is literary immortality, although this does not become clear until the end of the novel. (More about Nick Adams below.) For Miguel, this dream is to be seen simply as an American. Ironically, both Nick and Miguel try to achieve a transformation of character by adopting various pretenses. Nick pretends to be writing a biography of sorts on Gallin in order to have access to his friends and any stories he might uncover that he could use to extort money from Gallin. Miguel, who has adopted the persona of a street hood/Footlocker salesman, believes that the only way to become “American” is to correct his facial deformities through plastic surgery. “It’s real hard to be American if people don’t like your face,” says Miguel. “You think you can fix my face?” (p. 128)

Even the minor characters are embedded in a world of pretense. Andrea, for example, is worried about aging, and she is worried about her relationship with Gallin; but she is unable to deal with her worries, so she tries to hide from. “Lately she felt panic pricking the backs of her eyes. She took codeine for it” (p. 17). Another character, Peter, Robert Gallin’s former nurse (who is also the lover of Nick Adams), has been learning to box (a nod to the violent image of the boxer killed by a right hook), exercising and losing weight, perhaps in an effort to stave off the potential deadly effects of living with the HIV virus, but he is also “worried that the weight loss might be perceived as a pejorative result of the HIV” (p. 151). Ana Garibaldi, the curator who has taken an interest in both Gallin’s masks and in Gallin himself, believes in Gallin’s nobler self, “like a real evangelist” (p. 66), a side she witnessed years earlier when he gave a talk about the need to preserve cultures against change. Yet even when Gallin reveals that he barely remembers the talk, that he does not even think about preserving cultures against change any more because there are “no answers for those things” (p. 67), she perseveres in her belief that he is a good man. It is only later in the novel that we see that her reasons for wanting to connect to Gallin are also layered in pretense. “She wanted the job from him. The money would be terrific. But she was also ready to team up with someone.” (p. 173). She was tired of living alone, “tired of loneliness” (p. 173). Finally, Kiran, Bernardo’s wife, is almost a symbol of pretense. She remains hidden away in her post-modern apartment, grieving, afraid of age, afraid of a giant blimp that hovers nearby and the terrorism the blimp suggests to her; hers is now a world bereft of spiritual connection where she even questions whether or not she ever loved Bernardo; and yet at the same time she is surrounded by her paintings, similar in style to Rothko (the painter who believed that his paintings could be the antidote to the spiritual malaise that infects the post-modern world). One could say that Kiran’s world reflects the highest artifice, the greatest degree of pretense. Indeed, when her son is troubled, afraid, rather than dealing with his pain, she puts him to sleep and retreats to her studio. When Gallin pays her a visit, they sit on the couch and she lights up a joint. Like Andrea, she seems to prefer being somewhat anesthetized.

Beyond the characters themselves, the very atmosphere of the novel suggests that the world itself is made up of layer upon layer of pretense. This atmosphere is created mostly through Gallin’s internal observations about the nature of the world and life after 9/11. There are many examples. At one point Gallin is musing about the artist formerly known as Prince and remembers Tom Brokaw talking about “the future of identity in our rapidly changing world” (p. 21) and concludes that “the future of identity stood no chance against the image” (p. 21.) When he first notices Miguel, who is talking tough with a co-worker at the shoe store, he is reminded that pretense is a mechanism for dealing with others. “It was difficult for men to touch each other. They’d do anything to mask the need” (p. 24). And then commenting on the slang used by the two young men: “Gallin, drawn now to this dialogue, this stupendously declarative speech, tried to make more sense of it. To find what was hidden in it. That was the beauty of all speech, the hidden parts” (p. 24). Miguel’s transition from the slang speech to Standard English when he sells Gallin the shoes underscores the artificial nature of language. In other words, even language is pretense.

Later, when he is attending the New Year’s Eve party, Gallin is irritated by people having a “good time” so soon after the terrorist attack on the towers (and so soon after Bernardo’s death). He is still seeking his own transformation.

What had cocktails by lamplights to do with getting whole, really? Or with living and dying? Experts in the evocative now, scientists of our own symbolism and circus masters of our own emotional triggers, we hardly knew what was real, so adroitly did we fool ourselves. The real was too hard to trace through all the self-manipulation (p. 55)

Gallin’s introspective moments are filled with recognition of the pretenses that are embedded in the post-modern landscape. In the quest to transcend, to do the right thing, to preserve the cultures of the past, to put your faith in something, in God, in the secular cathedrals of Fifth Avenue, in anything, all of which reflects one form of pretense or another, Gallin realizes that “the world made it impossible to be honest,” (p. 97). And so he “yearns for the simplicity of art” (p. 98), another form of pretense. All of which is to say that Gallin is a man of many masks; indeed, it almost seems that his search for the real, the genuine, is really a search for a curator to appraise which of his masks is the most valuable, and this will be the one he will wear. But then, of course, there is the real Gallin, the one who really only wants “to see the punch” (p. 20).

The Inability to Transcend

If the novel, Pretend All Your Life, is about the need for pretense in a world that is or has fallen apart, and the subsequent hope to transcend that pretense and become more real, more human, in spite of circumstances, it is also about the degree to which one cannot escape circumstances. The novel is about the inability to transcend.

Consider the overall inability of Gallin to transcend his own circumstances. Before Gallin learns that Bernardo is alive, he believes that the way to deal with tragedy and pain is “to make it a joke” (p. 51). He wants to “have a good simple time” at the Theissen’s New Year’s Eve party. But he is not ready; he hasn’t “gained dominion over his demons’ (p. 52). He is “essentially always alone” (p. 53), wallowing in a cynical, sarcastic state of spiritual and emotional isolation. It is no wonder, then, that he insults everyone at the party. In spite of his need to transcend himself (or come back to some sense of his own humanity), he plays the buffoon instead. Thus when Gallin discovers that his son Bernardo is alive, one might expect that Gallin will finally be able to put his past behind, transcend the pretense of his past, and discover what is real. But this is not the case. Indeed, the appearance of Bernardo causes him to question what is or isn’t real; and at one point he begs “the universe to tell him” (p. 80). And it soon becomes clear that Gallin will never be able to transcend the pretense and latent violence of the world he lives in. He is himself trapped by the inherent violence of three sets of conflicting circumstances: 1) he is trapped by Bernardo’s decision to abandon his family and his current life; 2) he is trapped by Miguel’s need to escape the brutal violence of life on the street (Gallin will become Miguel’s savior even as Miguel is Gallin’s savior); and 3) the tyranny of Nick Adam’s knowledge that Bernardo is still alive, and with that knowledge the threat of exposure ( in which case Bernardo would likely be arrested for insurance fraud, and Gallin arrested as an accomplice). “’I just want to do the right thing,’” Gallin tells Ana. “’I have spent most of my life not quite doing that’” (p. 179). Yet Gallin is effectively unable to do the right thing. He is unable to leave the world of his circumstances behind. He performs surgery on Bernardo’s face, but he has had to use the services of his former nurse, Peter. Of course he has paid Peter for his silence, but in a world where pretense is king, who can say if this silence will last. So too, Gallin further complicates his circumstance by hiring Miguel to silence Nick Adams, who also knows about Bernardo. “’There is man who is threatening me, trying to extort me, threatening my livelihood, my life,’” he tells Miguel. “’I need someone to take care of it’” (p. 131). Further, when Bernardo asks his father what he has done about Nick Adams, Gallin says “’I don’t know what I’m doing about it really. I just don’t know if he’s significant enough to be a real problem’” (p. 191). It is a revealing lie. Gallin knows full well what will happen to Nick Adams; in fact Nick has already been murdered by this time. That Gallin pretends ignorance of Nick’s fate suggests not only that he was unable to transcend the pretense of his world, but that he has become instead a part of the violence that exists just below that pretense. One could even say that Gallin has been a part of this violent, below the surface world all along, in spite of his aspirations to be otherwise. He is still the “man of wealth of taste” (the Devil) who has “horny yellow feet” we saw at the beginning of the novel. Moreover, at the end of the novel, he recognizes this truth about himself: instead of feeling like Abraham (who was following God’s plan), he “now felt like Frankenstein” (p. 192). In his search to create human beauty, to find truth, he discovers that he exists on the opposite end of the spectrum. He feels like a creator of monsters, which is another way to suggest that he recognizes that he is himself a monster.

The Spiritual Center of the Novel

The desire to transcend begs the question: what does it means to transcend? The novel suggests two possible answers: 1) to transcend is to understand what is real; and/or 2) to take control of one’s life, one’s destiny (which requires action rather than simply thinking about what should or must be done). Both definitions suggest that to transcend is to move beyond pretense; however, neither directly assigns a value to transcendence (i.e. whether transcendence implies something nobler, or something more base). Again, as noted above, none of the characters of the novel truly escape the world they live in. in spite of their aspirations. Moreover, their very circumstances, which are characterized by a brooding, even overwhelming degree of background violence, are themselves a barrier to transcendence. Indeed, this background violence, the novel suggests, needs only a slight nudge to move quickly and perhaps permanently into the foreground, becoming an all too visible reality in a post-9/11 world.

Of course the meaning of transcendence changes for each character. How does Gallin’s descent into the violent of a post 9/11 world become a barrier? If he is merely recognizing now the truth about himself, is he able to let go of the pretense of his past and take full control of his destiny? And what about the desires of the other characters? What does it mean to transcend one’s circumstance for someone like Miguel, who survived the brutality of civil war in Nicaragua, who has already faced the demons of a dehumanizing world and found an inner, even transcendent sense of himself; why would he want to give up who he is for a plastic version of reality? And how is Miguel’s desire different from Bernardo’s? Or Nick Adams?

The key to answering such questions, the key to understanding the meaning of transcendence in the novel, which is the key to understanding the novel itself, can be found in the character Lester Rhodes, Gallin’s former colleague and mentor. Lester Rhodes is the spiritual center of the novel, for he is the one character unencumbered by the need for pretense. When the novel opens, it has been years since Gallin and Lester have had any contact at all. Their chance meeting is layered with both irony and symbolism. Gallin has just purchased a pair of shoes from Miguel at the Foot Locker and he is somewhat emotionally pumped up, having just experienced the undercurrent of violence that characterizes the world Miguel lives in.

Gallin glanced back through the glass wall-window of the store. As he did he saw Miguel, looking shadowy, sealed in a glass world Gallin had just escaped, throw his box cutter at a Jordan poster taped against the wall. It was an expert throw: the slate grey fin somersaulted through the air like a weapon in a king fu movie. It nailed Jordan, aloft and akimbo, in his famous wagging tongue. Caught in a vigil, Gallin nodded his head once at the boy in a surprising calm gesture of impressed approval. Surprising because he was not calm, but frightened. (p. 28)

Lester had been Gallin’s mentor and friend. Lester had firmly supported Gallin’s desire to become a plastic surgeon, lending “stature and thus legitimacy to Gallin’s” (p. 31) career choice. Lester had also provided Gallin with comfort and support during the era of Watergate, “when the world – both his own and the larger one— was collapsing” (p. 33). In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the towers, however, with the world once again collapsing around Gallin and everyone else, Lester is no longer a part of Gallin’s inner circle, no longer able to give him support. The two have been separated by time and events. Indeed, the very fact that Gallin runs over Lester (an accident which contributes to the eventual death of Lester by the end of the novel), suggests that on a symbolic level Gallin and Lester no longer inhabit the same world. Gallin’s world is the world of post 9/11 violence and anxiety. Lester’s world is something else entirely. When Gallin says to Lester, partly in jest “‘be careful—it’s dangerous out there, you know,’” Lester says “‘I’ll stay out of the path of madmen then’” (p. 35). The chance meeting also underscores how far removed Gallin is from the life he had hoped to live. For a moment, and a moment only, he is able to reconnect with Lester, and thus with his former self.

He [Lester] would die soon. They both knew it—and it made the affection so long ago seeded grow up almost anew between them. An emotion long tethered by world concerns, now at the end of the road became primary andbuoyant and free, beautiful as a cut gardenia bobbing on the water. It floated there between them, music of a deeper world, and they each acknowledged it privately and did exactly all they could with such emotion: nothing. (p. 36).

Lester now belongs to a world where his emotions are no longer “tethered by worldly concerns.” He, too, is now “primary and buoyant and free,” which is why he and Gallin are separated by the “music of a deeper world.” The description here, of the nature of how the emotional connection between the two men has changed, how they have become separated from each other by time and temperament, is also an apt description of existence in a spiritual plane. The gardenias “bobbing on the water” are a symbol of happiness and purity, a traditional quasi-religious symbol. But the image of white flowers (gardenias are in fact white) floating on the water is also reminiscent of a Buddhist garden with lotus flowers (also white) floating in a pond. (The lotus, of course, is a Buddhist symbol of the growth or progress of the soul.) Admittedly, there is a danger of reading too much into the symbolic meaning of the use of flowers in any work of fiction. But is worth mentioning that Mackin makes mention of flowers only four times in the entire novel. It is the very absence of flowers from the rest of the novel that gives especial weight to the symbolic meaning in these four instances. In addition to the gardenias noted above, a vase of dying roses is mentioned twice, first when we are introduced to the clutter that is Gallin’s office (on Gallin’s desk there were “yesterday’s scotch and a dozen roses dying in a vase” (p. 13)), and later, when Gallin is cleaning out his office and he discards this vase of last week’s “desiccated roses.”

He palmed their slimy stems and stuffed the tops down into the can. A couple of petals escaped, seesawing down the languid indirectness to the floor, the weight of dreams. (p. 102)

Finally, in the middle of the afternoon on the day of the New Year’s Eve party, Gallin is at home drinking scotch and Andrea brings in a bouquet of sunflowers and arranges them on the windowsill. “The petals filtered the sun like church glass” (p. 50).

Both the gardenias and the sunflowers are associated with positive religious, even spiritual aspects of life. And in both instances, Gallin is witness to the positive effects of these images, but only briefly. He is able to reconnect with Lester for a moment, until the memory of the death of Bernardo resurfaces and the moment is gone. And when he sees Andrea with the sunflowers, he feels ‘a wave of affection for” (p. 50), though this wave soon dissipates. The symbolic meaning of the roses, on the other hand, is decidedly anti-religious. Indeed, traditionally roses are associated with a sense of renewal and spiritual love, but these roses are dying. They are more a symbol of Gallin’s anti-religious views, his lack of faith. Gallin is in fact an atheist at best; he is filled “with Denmarkian doubt” (p. 132). His cathedral is “the great secular cathedral of man” (p. 95) on Fifth Avenue. And while he does pay homage to a garden, it is the garden outside the Cooper-Hewitt, “behind the tall iron-barred fence, [where] two of Sudol’s large glass pieces stood in bold contrast to the grey masonry and the flaxen winter grass (p. 97). In other words, his garden contains no flowers at all, which is a symbolic representation of his lack of religious and spiritual belief.

If Lester Rhodes, then, is the spiritual center of the novel, and Richard Gallin is the spiritual edge, the anti-center, the other characters are living their lives somewhere in between these two extremes. More importantly, however, it is their proximity to the spiritual center (or depending upon your perspective, to the outer edge, the spiritual anti-center) that defines for each character what transcendence means, and ultimately what the novel is all about. Lester Rhodes, for example, is the only character who experiences an actual communion with God (this experience is a real event for Lester even if it you read his conversation with God on pages 163-164 as the imagined by-product of a dying brain). He has already transcended the physical world, and his death leaves the world of the novel a darker place. “As he died the bright window [the light of paradise, of good triumphing over evil, of the spiritual realm] filled with shadowy gloaming, the westerly sun eclipsed by the Metlife blimp [symbol of terrorism] as it sailed above Fifth Avenue [the avenue of Gallin’s secular cathedrals]” (p. 163). Gallin, on the other hand, intellectualizes religious experience. One moment he imagines his choices reflect the God of Abraham, the next he makes intellectual references to Icarus and Greek mythology. But always, he believes that “life is better if you [can] see your gods” (p. 133).

The closest thing to a prayer Bernardo can muster are the words “Dear God” (p. 161). Kiran’s God is the god of art; or perhaps to Bob Marley singing “stand up for your rights” (p. 140)). If Nick Adams were to pray it would be to the God of books (literary immortality). Peter addresses God only incidentally (i.e. Oh “God, what is this confession going to be?” (p. 153)). Indeed, his God, the god that sustains his life, is the science that created the pills that keep his HIV under control. “He swallowed daily like a priest took the host; AZT, 3TC and efavirenz. Pure science [as opposed to religion], a thing of beauty” (p. 150). Andrea worships the God (or goddess) of youth and animalistic joy (when she has all but abandoned hope in her relationship with Gallin, she finds herself naked, jumping up and down on the bed with one of the dogs, Barney, who “joined the trampolining, thrusting his long face gleefully between her legs, timing his leaps to push his nose into her descending groin” (p. 158), and all the while Andrea “tried to go higher and higher” and “oxygen dancedevangelically [italics mine] in her lungs; beneath her flying feet the grim world lost all claim on her” (p. 159). Ana Garibaldi’s family comes from Syria, the desert land of the Hebrew and Islamic versions of God (which symbolically alludes to the conflict forms the background for the terrorist attack on the towers), but she is mostly concerned with convincing Gallin that his actions on behalf of Bernardo stem from a godlike source.

‘You’ll be making a mask [she says]. It’s as though the animating spirit of his first mask, his old face, is used up, and he’s got a new spirit that needs expression but no mask to speak through. You’re just making what the spirit needs.’ (p. 178)

Of all of these remaining characters, it is Miguel who can claim the closest relationship with God as we typically conceive God to be. (In spite of the fact that Gallin’s secretary, Janine, is a believer, we do not really get to know that much about her and her beliefs.) The night before he kills Nick Adams, he spends some time preparing himself; his preparation is spiritual even as is it both physical and mental. After pumping out fifty push-ups, he kneels beside his bed and whispers his prayers. He “was certain that Jesus knew him and listened to him pray. And while he is somewhat bothered by the need to kill Nick (“Guilt worked on him like a heavy bag, and the fifth commandment echoed in his ears” (p. 186).), he is also determined to get his piece of the American dream. “A new face and ten thousand dollars [for killing Nick] was his ticket, his invitation to the America he saw on television. He was going to get it (p. 169). Ironically, Miguel loses that which makes him more spiritual than the others (except for Lester), in trading in who he is for a plastic, American version. Like Gallin, he is enamored of the very same glorified violence that dominates the post 9/11 world. Indeed, he and Gallin even reminisce over the death of the same Atlantic City boxer.

That punch the other night on TV though [thinks Miguel the night before he kills Nick Adams], the one that killed that guy in Atlantic City, was the most devastating. He played it over and over again in his mind, picturing himself throwing it, until he drifted into an arid sleep. (p. 185)

Miguel becomes the most violent character in the novel, and by killing Nick Adams, he moves irrecoverably towards Gallin and the spiritual edge, the anti-center. Of course one could argue that Gallin’s sins are of a theoretical nature; he is a thinker, not a doer. Miguel is a doer; his sins are the sins of someone who actually commits the crime. But there is truly no moral difference between the two. As Gallin himself notes while reflecting onhow his life has changed with the sudden resurrection of Bernardo, “Knowledge made one just as complicit as action” (p. 102). So the difference between Gallin and Miguel is only a matter of degree. Gallin wanted to see the punch that killed the boxer in Atlantic City; Miguel wanted to throw that punch. Gallin wanted to see the death of Nick Adams; Miguel wanted to be the agent of that death.

In the final analysis, Gallin is unable to transcend the circumstances, the pretenses of his life, because he really doesn’t believe there is anything better. He is too much consumed by worldly concerns. He cannot see past these concerns. When Bernardo arrives for the surgery at the end of the novel with his head shaved, ready for the operation, Gallin sees only an “alien, weird animal, some pharaonic mixture of man and ram” (p. 187). Gallin does not want to believe that Bernardo can move on; he wants Bernardo to change his mind, but they go forward with the operation. The surgery itself is an ironic disaster. Near the end, Gallin begins to cut before Peter, his former nurse, is quite ready. Peter’s hand is cut and his HIV infected blood oozes into Bernardo’s mouth. The irony is multi-faceted. Gallin had fired Peter when he learned he was HIV positive, even though the chances or infecting a patient were considered infinitesimally small; now the chances are quite good that Peter has infected a patient, Gallin’s son. Further, while Bernardo has a new face and is heading out on his own to start a new life, he may in fact have become infected with HIV; moreover, his father did not have the chance to tell him what happened, so he may be in for a very big surprise, certainly not the new beginning he had imagined. Bernardo, too, may be unable to move, on, unable to transcend. And so the final message of the novel is rather bleak. “Life goes on,” Gallin thinks at the end of the novel. “That’s what you learned. Life went on, until it didn’t.” (p. 199). It is this almost nihilist reflection that marks the great tragedy of the novel, the tragedy of circumstance.

--Peter Damian Bellis

Peter Damian Bellis is the author of The Conjure Man (River Boat Books, 2010) and One Last Dance with Lawrence Welk & Other Stories (River Boat Books, 1996), which was a Minnesota Book Award Finalist.