Thursday, July 16, 2009

"Heroic Measures"

Jill Ciment is a professor of English at the University of Florida. Her books include the novels, Teeth of the Dog and The Law of Falling Bodies; a collection of short stories, Small Claims; and a memoir, Half a Life.

She applied the “Page 69 Test” to her new novel, Heroic Measures, and reported the following:
On page 69, we find Alex and Ruth, the seventy-something hero and heroine of Heroic Measures, enduring the last few minutes of an open house. They’ve just put their apartment of forty-five years on the market. As a microcosm of the narrative, it’s not a bad example.

The page opens with a question. Alex asks two potential buyers in matching red parkas if the police have apprehended Pamir, the missing driver of a tanker truck that is “stuck” in the Midtown Tunnel. New Yorkers are panicked it’s the next terrorist attack.

The buyer, who hasn’t taken off his hood, shakes his head no.

“We have a million-dollar decision to make,” the other hood answers. “Turn off the goddam news.”

Alex and Ruth then slip back into their bedroom to phone the animal hospital. Their dachshund, Dorothy, seventy-something in dog years, has just undergone back surgery. The night before, Alex and Ruth had found her paralyzed on the kitchen floor. The entire open house has been spent waiting to find out if Dorothy will survive the surgery, let alone walk again.

One of the novel’s intents is to constantly juxtapose Dorothy’s plight with the city’s terror. The initial idea for the novel occurred to me shortly after 9/11.

Lost dog and cat flyers invariably catch my attention, and I make a special effort to look out for those missing pets. I remember one such flyer--a lost gray cat--adhered to a lamppost in my old neighborhood, the East Village. The next day the towers fell and in the aftermath, flyers for missing persons--photographs, which tower, what floor--began to share the lamppost. At first, nobody covered the lost cat poster, but eventually it was plastered over: the human tragedy consumed the animal's plight. If a novel can be reduced to a single image of conception, then the lost cat poster is responsible for Heroic Measures.

Page 69 ends with another potential buyer interrupting the private, heartbreaking moment Alex and Ruth share when they learn Dorothy hasn’t yet awoken from a seizure. The buyer, oblivious of circumstances, asks a most trivial, but practical question—their stove is missing a knob and he wants to know if he buys the apartment, where can he get one.
Read an excerpt from Heroic Measures, and learn more about the book and author at Jill Ciment's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue