In ‘Morningside Heights’ disease tests a spirit and marriage

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As Spence’s Alzheimer’s disease progresses, many people leave the Robins marriage constellation, but a few enter or return, including a pungent but strong Jamaican babysitter and her hemophiliac son who plays chess, whose life goal is to cure hemophilia so he can get a tattoo, and Arlo, Spence’s son from a brief and unhappy early marriage. Arlo’s childhood involved being dragged across the country by his monstrously selfish mother (a tragically non-gifted midwife at times, a light-fingered bakery worker to others), his unnoticed dyslexia, and his upbringing. ignored. A teenage attempt to live with her father, stepmother, and half-sister Sarah (now a medical student) was also unsuccessful, but as an adult this lost lamb at least found a herd of like-minded souls (they work at a place called Yahoo, California).

Yet Spence’s son cannot precisely join the family, even under the circumstances; he only manages to show up unexpectedly and leave before anyone notices his departure, surprising Sarah on her college campus or providing access to an investigational Alzheimer’s drug, before retiring. Arlo looks too much like his dad to finally connect, but watching them both try – over and over again – provides some of the novel’s many grace notes.

Henkin’s portrayal of Spence and Pru’s academic and prudent marriage takes place from the physical connection of a graduate student yard (no handshakes allowed above 59th Street, in case someone from the English department would intersect them; then, as the matter deepened, no grip over, gradually, 72nd, 96th and 110th streets) until Spence’s gradual departure from his own body, leaving behind him something “laid out like a piece of veal”. Henkin is a good writer with an ironic penchant 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 want to be paralyzed with nostalgia – especially now, if we hope to see our city’s resurgence – is particularly nuanced when a neighborhood in the city is also a city. college town, but Henkin more than rose to the challenge.

Pru, walking alone through the deeply familiar streets, recognizes the ghosts lurking behind the storefronts, both those in the neighborhood and her own: “She’s been to Koronet Pizza; Past Famiglia, past the West End Bar, although it’s also long gone now. Past the old chocolate factory, which had been there for so long that it could have been formed from the primordial mud. And, finally, the corner of 116th Street, where Chock Full o ‘Nuts was. It was the Chinese place now, where college kids went to take out. When I moved to my ancestral island of Manhattan eight years ago, I lived a stone’s throw from this corner. By then, Chock Full o ‘Nuts was long gone, but the Chinese restaurant – Ollie’s – was in full swing. Only it’s a Shake Shack now. And so on.

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