Some years ago, Michael Kinsley explored the notion of a political gaffe, an event, he said, when “a politician tells the truth — or more precisely, when he or she accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head.” Amy, the title character of Jincy Willett’s deeply comic novel “Amy Falls Down,” is a writer. She’s retired, except for some teaching, and retiring – her favorite companion is her bloodhound, Alphonse. Alphonse has “an uncanny fascination with where she planned to be and a genius for thwarting her: ordinarily a sedate plodder, he could materialize in a chair just as she was about to sit down.” If that’s a lot of attention for the dog, it’s attention that’s due, for Alphonse sets the plot in motion: he upends Amy as she is carrying a Norfolk pine out to her garden. Concussed, Amy sits for a rare interview, and, though she doesn’t remember what happens, says what she really thinks about writers and writing. Interview done, and a restless night later, Amy takes herself to the emergency room. That’s where she discovers, mostly to her chagrin but with a tiny bit of pleasure, that the interview has turned her into a literary celebrity.
Amy is old enough to resist the allure, but she finds herself carried along for the ride all the same. Her former literary agent turns up again, and arranges a series of radio appearances. They become TV appearances, and Amy, who hates to fly, criss-crosses the country by train. We revisit Amy’s past with her, her deep relationship with her gay friend Max, who died years ago, and the brief but disastrous marriage that brought her from New England to Southern California. We are there as she picks up her regular life of seeing friends and meeting students from her writing classes. We watch as Amy heals. We see that either the fall or the consequences has shaken something loose, and Amy starts writing short stories.
The gap between the writer as public persona and the writer as person provides a rich field, and Willett mines it well. One of Amy’s students wants to turn her home into a writer’s colony, but for people outside the standard writing world. Amy persuades her to name it “Croatoan – the Missing Writers’ Colony.” Amy works by writing down possible story titles such as “A Riot of Tasteful Color” or “Blushing in the Dark.” Over and over, Willett brings us back to Amy’s life and, maybe, the roots of her short stories. Here’s an example:
Amy drifted into deep sleep, coming awake again only just before sunrise, in the middle of a sex dream involving her much younger self and Anthony Hopkins in footy pajamas. Not for the first, time, Amy blushed in the dark.
Even at her age, Amy grows, connecting with people directly and virtually, in the 21st century way. “Amy Falls Down” is light enough to read during a day at the beach, and meaningful enough to stick with you long after the sunburn has gone. Altogether, it’s a satisfying, funny, and memorable novel.
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