Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Baker's characters look for love amid delusion

Originally printed May 9, 2012, in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

"Tell me, Alice, did you seriously think this would all work?" asks a 60-something psychiatrist Kathy to a similarly aged woman who seems to be Kathy's only patient. "That you and Danny could be in love, and you could still hold on to your husband? And that he would still love you too?"

The question comes early in Larry Baker's new novel, "Love and Other Delusions," but quite late in the chronology of this decades-long, 172-page story of adultery.

Alice had just been showing Kathy photos of Danny Shay, the much younger man with whom Alice had an on-again/off-again affair for more than 20 years. And Kathy — who understandably no longer believes anything that Alice tells her — finds herself unexpectedly moved by the series of images.

"Kathy was disappointed," the narrator writes. "She studied the first photograph and self-consciously controlled the expression on her face, knowing that Alice was looking at her. The second confirmed the first. And then the third."

In each of them, it was clear that, while Danny "was attractive enough," he "was not the handsome young man of Alice's stories."

But when Kathy saw the last picture, she "opened her mouth and tried to speak, but nothing came out."

In that single snapshot, "Danny was more than handsome. He was beautiful. Whoever took the picture had caught him unawares and un-posed, just as he was turning to face the camera. His head was tilted just a little, his eyes were slightly squinted as if focusing on ... himself."

With the slight change in her psychiatrist's expression, Alice knows that Kathy now "understands" what Alice saw in Danny. Why she, as a nearly 30-year-old adjunct English professor married to the college dean, would begin a relationship with an 18-year-old student. Why she would spend 20 years trying to care for Danny as both a lover and a mentor. Why she eventually would confess to her long-suffering husband how the affair saved their marriage (because after taking up with Danny, she stopped bedding other men). Why she would delude herself into continuing the relationship after Danny commits credit fraud in her name ("He's a very talented young man with bad luck and poor judgment sometimes").

But that snapshot is just one image among many. And Kathy is too slow to realize that Alice's delusions come from her insistence on seeing only what she wants to see and ignoring everything else.

Delusions, after all, are seldom completely untethered from reality. Instead, they usually involve fixing on a part and willfully imagining it to be the whole. And by the end of the novel, the biggest mystery is why Alice's husband, Peter Bartram, deluded himself for so long.

As the novel flickers back and forth through time like an art house film, Kathy eventually learns that none of the characters in "Alice's stories" — not Alice's husband, not Danny's invalid father nor emotionally needy siblings, not Danny's many other lovers, not Kathy herself — are what Alice thinks they are.

The novel works because, say what you want about Iowa City's own Larry Baker, he understands the power of self-delusion. And the characters in his novels usually manage to discover — and to hold on to — at least a few moments of un-deluded love within the craziness of their lives.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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