Hints of His Mortality, by David Borofka
Hints of His Mortality.|
University of Iowa Press, 1996.
235 pages, $22.95 (hardcover).
1996 Iowa Short Fiction Award winner, David Borofka's Hints of His Mortality is both a rambunctious tumbling and a heart-chord twanging journey through the life of the contemporary male creature. The title of the collection is a play on Wordsworth's long poem Intimations on Immortality, which is quoted in the precursory pages. Divided into three sections—each a line from the quoted poem: "A Sleep and a Forgetting," "Trailing Clouds of Glory," and "Shades of the Prison-House"—these fourteen stories follow men struggling to be brothers, husbands, fathers, and friends. Borofka's typical male is of the sensitive species, one who makes mistakes, recognizes them after the fact and relentlessly torments himself.
In "Prologue: In the Shadows at Gaylords," a man seeks forgiveness from his wife for his infidelity. His ex-wife shows up to their ex-favorite restaurant, where she tells him the story of dropping the kids off at the sitter's house, who had just walked in on her husband dressed in drag, undressing the pizza boy. Watching his wife tell the story, he muses, "the thought that I'd caused her as much pain with another type of duplicity was more than I could bear."
These men are timid, but trying men, trying to keep a step ahead of their gender and generational stereotypes. In "Mid-Clair," a man's wife is going through a mid-life crisis at the urging of her therapist. Ritually, she begins firing insults at her husband: "The chip on your shoulder is from the wood above it." At her request he sleeps on the front seat of his car in the garage. "The three of them maintain this veneer of the familial even as he folds his pajamas to put them back in the glove compartment." To kiss his daughter in the morning, he rolls down the window. And, he finds "that there is some strange comfort in sleeping with the . . . eager garden tools of summer."
The last story of the collection is simply called "Epilogue," wherein the same soured husband from "Prologue" finds himself in a bar after his wife and daughter have walked out on him. Experiencing the reunion of two brothers, which is "occasioned by one's latest announcement of infidelity and a continuing absence of principle," he retires to the bathroom to puke his guts out. Later, listening to the god-fearing (there is some aspect of religion haunting each of these stories) brother pronounce his love for a woman other than his wife, the other brother begins to choke until blue and drooling, when finally he is saved by the drunk, the unnamed narrator. "What am I to say to such things?" he questions. "That I had begun to believe that if our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting, then the dreams of this life are nightmares only?" Where the last story ends is not long before the beginning of the first story.
The first published story in this collection was in 1990, a testament to Borofka's seven-plus years of attention to detail, which is apparent line-by-line. Borofka represents a whole new generation of young American writers born from the ranks of MFA programs—intellectual yet uncomplex, sensitive yet tough-skinned, melancholic yet elevated. He's a writer who is saying listen to me, but don't take me too seriously. His male characters are embodiments of modern male mortality, sufferers of themselves, martyrs of the everyday. What makes them so likable, is that although they understand "that in a choice between inevitable evils, the noble embrace the greater hurt," they always find an excuse to smile and to accept. They realize that there are moments when the best thing to do in the face of opposition is to relinquish a little of the lion's pride, to shrug and to laugh.