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Seventy Years Young
By Margaret Black

The Confessions of Max Tivoli
By Andrew Sean Greer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 269 pages, $23

Like Audrey Niffenegger in The Time Traveler’s Wife, Andrew Greer uses a science fiction device— living backward in his case—not to play logical games but to explore the complexities of a lifelong love. Greer’s hero begins composing his autobiography, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, as he nears 60 years of age. But he is actually sitting in a schoolyard sandbox looking 12 to everyone around him. Before Max’s mind and capacities decline irrecoverably into childhood and then infancy—an eventuality he plans to subvert in any case—he wants to get his life story down so that his son, a genuine 12-year-old whom he’s watching play ball, will eventually learn the complete truth about his father.

When Max Tivoli is born in 1871, he looks 70. Everyone’s appalled but his dad, an upstart Dane who’s married a rich San Franciscan. He sees in Max a creature of fairy tales, a Nisse, a lucky gnome. “Born a wizened creature of seemingly great age,” Max says, “I soon became an infant with the thick white hair of a man in his sixties, curls of which my mother cut to place in her hair album.” His body lives backwards, but his mind and emotional life mature chronologically. At first Max is kept at home away from prying eyes, but eventually he’s allowed on outings with his parents—which permits the reader to enjoy the author’s splendid descriptions of San Francisco before the 1906 earthquake—and he even makes friends with Hughie, a boy his own age.

Max’s actual age and his apparent age always add up to 70, a fact that makes his attempts to connect with his beloved Alice both marvelously funny and wrenchingly sad. They first meet when Alice is 14. Max’s father and the family money have disappeared, so Max’s mother rents out part of their house. Horribly shy, adolescent Max now looks to be in his 50s, so he’s passed off as his mother’s elderly brother-in-law. Like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, Max yearns for and schemes after his Lolita, only to end in the arms of her lonely warm-hearted mother, who gently sees Max’s virginal fumbling as the awkwardness of a man who “hasn’t touched a woman in a while.” To complicate matters, Alice falls in love with Hughie, one of the few outside his family who knows Max’s situation.

Alice and Max have two more occasions to meet and love, and in both time periods there is joy and misery. Greer uses Max’s condition to let Max look at himself from vantage points that no one can ordinarily have. As an elderly adolescent, he experiences the social dismissal and loneliness of age simultaneously with the heat of puberty, and later, in a splendidly detailed evocation, he relishes the physical delights of boyhood, not just as memories, but in the body yet with all the wisdom of age.

Greer sets his tale in a past just beyond most readers’ memory. This frees him to create with great sensuous particularity a world that seems utterly accurate. The German butcher delivering meat at the back door brings his daughter along to translate. Max watches his mother “holding a hairpin over a candle, heating it to curl her lashes.” Years later she sits “sideways in her chair as if she still wore a bustle; she was of a generation that had learned to sit this way in their youth, so she still did it out of habit and out of a sense that this antique pose was the essence of beauty.”

Greer’s writing is glorious. Max observes from the sandbox that “the sun alternates between throwing deep shadows behind the children and trees and then sweeping them back up again the moment a cloud crosses the sky. The grass fills with gold, then falls to nothing.” In a classroom with his son (who thinks Max is an adopted brother), “you pass me notes while our forefathers dump tea into a Boston bay; you blink and feign narcolepsy while redcoats march in lines across distant states; you allow me to see your pencil art—the automotive wonders you would produce, all bristling tubes and fold-down gadgetry—as Valley Forge swallows its frozen victims.” In San Francisco, a woman wears “a long yellow gown covered in a fine black netting on which were sewn, as if plastered there during a storm, large silhouetted leaves.” A doctor sits “in the upstairs parlor, sipping the brandy and looking about the room as if he planned to inherit it.”

Greer opens Max’s Confessions by saying, “We are each the love of someone’s life.” The unwritten corollary is that the someone we love always loves someone else, an aspect partially captured in Greer’s epigraph from Proust: “Love . . . , ever unsatisfied, lives always in the moment that is about to come.” Readers like me may find Max’s philosophy overly deterministic or downright wrong, but this is his story. Only once in The Confessions is there a coming together, and it cannot last, in part because of Max’s condition. More sad and chilling than any of Max’s vicissitudes, however, is the revelation of Hughie’s lifelong love and its tragic consequences. The humorous Lolita passages between Alice and Max at the beginning are uncomfortably echoed between Hughie and Max toward the end, as Hughie takes Max on a what’s meant to be an uproariously funny Nabokovian road trip. It’s also true that money comes and goes as the plot requires, and there’s an Irish maid whose clichéed career bursts straight out of an old bodice ripper.

That being said, Greer’s an amazing writer, and his inspired imagination will sweep you right past most of the troublesome patches to the genuine treasures of this clever, engaging novel.

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