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Book Review: The Hospice Singer

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The name of the novel immediately engages: “The Hospice Singer,” but award-winning writer Larry Duberstein once again ensures that what starts out as a fairly straightforward, albeit unusual, narrative takes an unexpected turn that deepens its theme. The Hospice Singer, a psychological and existential tale, will likely prove especially appealing to older readers who may have had it with formulaic crime thrillers, kitschy beach reads, and narcissistic memoirs. Here’s a realistic and memorable story for folks of a certain age who can appreciate how humor infused into a subtle exploration of the trials of life can show without a bit of didacticism that it’s never too late to alter course and glean — dare we use this word in our fractious age—“ happiness.”

Nice guy Ian Nelson, a 67-year-old recent retiree, sings with Angel Band, a hospice choir whose members take turns visiting dying patients in a small New England town. A likable protagonist who, to his own surprise one day, starts acting in an unconventional way when his group visits Anita Richardson, an attractive, young, still vibrant brain cancer victim. She singles him out by making eye contact and he stays on for a bit. Married for 40 years to the caustic, analytical Polly, a psychotherapist, and the father of two grown children who have left the nest long ago, Ian finds himself strangely attracted to Anita and contrary to hospice choir rules, allows a personal relationship of visits, storytelling and the occasional drink to follow.

A lesser talent would signal a mid-life crisis, but Duberstein hints at something less overt and more significant — a need to connect that takes its origin from impulse and intuition. His wife Polly is ”mischievous and challenging,” he “recalcitrant and reliably dodging conflict.” That insertion of “reliably” teases out his wife’s cool assessment of him as “sentimental, morbid, and melancholic.” He has friends, his older former boss Jack who loves ice fishing and is determinably, sometimes foolishly, independent, the local librarian Ann with whom he exchanges quips and others in his singing group. His son Carl is caring but has his own life, and Carrie, his volatile daughter, keeps her distance 3,000 miles away. He keeps up with the news — anti-Trump in head and heart — and in general leads, or is led by, an ordinary life of habit. Most of all, he has Fred, his beloved female dog — Fred as he tells Anita — “is short for Fred.”

When he hears that Anita has suddenly disappeared with a guy on a motorcycle, Ian is shocked and surprising himself again, becomes determined to find her, an investigation he undertakes in secret, and rationalizes once he learns that she has gone West where his daughter lives. Besides, Polly has just upped and left him, indicating it’s the end of their marriage. And here Duberstein pulls a risky but successful plot shift. He sets Ian On the Road and broadens the setting and theme of getting to know America, letting Ian drift to out-of-the-way places and with ear-perfect dialogue, that captures each region’s vernacular, chat with various locals. Unlike Steinbeck and Kerouac, whom Ian cites, and whose road trip quests became iconic in the 20th century — not to mention in spots suspiciously untruthful — Duberstein lets Ian, a moral man, “live and learn” in ways emotional and sexual that are both natural and wise. The Hospice Singer is an original and moving story for our time.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.