Saturday, February 1, 2014

Novels about Older Men Facing Death

Photo by Macomb Paynes.
Because I spent decades as an English teacher before becoming a gerontologist, I am interested in reading novels about older adults.

Novels featuring people in late adulthood address a number of themes: exploring mature love, renegotiating relationships with adult children, adjusting to age-related health challenges, role loss upon retirement, finally chasing a long-suppressed dream, reframing one's past, transmitting a legacy to the rising generation and more.

The characters in these novels have the advantage of decades of experience.  I view them as experienced mountain climbers, taking in the view of the valley below.

From their vantage point of late life, they have insights about their own life to mull over. And they have greater perspective about the circle of life to share with others.  If others will listen.

I am happy to recommend the following novels for people seeking to better empathize with mature men and to more readily accept the wisdom they have to offer. Sometimes it's easier to listen to the advice of a stranger than to one's own grandfather or father.

The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886). Leo Tolstoy published this novella when he was 58 years old.  The main character Ivan Ilych is a successful judge who suffers an injury while hanging some curtains and his health steadily declines from that point.

The book is divided into three sections: a quick overview of Ilych's achievements, his initial adjustment to his failing health, and then epiphanies he has in the last days and hours of his life. The novel is quite understated, but if readers look carefully, Ilych questions the values he had before having to face his own mortality.  In his final days, Ilych experiences a spiritual awakening.

The Memory of Old Jack (1974).  Wendell Berry has several novels set in the same county. This one centers on "Old Jack" Beechum, who is a 92-year-old Kentucky farmer.  During the course of one day in 1952, we watch Jack move slowly through his daily routine while his memory takes him back through the decades of his life.

We see quite a bit from his faint memories of older brothers who served in the Civil War to his courting days up through the years that he mentored younger farmers. Despite some jarring changes from one century to the next, what abides is Jack's love of the land and his total immersion in working that land. This book helps me related to my own farmer grandfather, born 1908.

Gilead (2004). Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer-prize winning novel depicts the final months of the life of Rev. John Ames, an Iowa pastor who is seventy 77 and published when the author was 61. Set in 1956, the book is one long letter penned to his very young son who is six turning seven. Ames' heart is failing, so he will not live to see his son reach manhood.

In an effort to leave a legacy, Ames describes his grandfather's role in the violent early history of Kansas as abolitionists fought those who would have Kansas enter the union as a slave state. Ames also describes the pastoral work of his pacifist father and shares what wisdom he can about how to live with others while striving to understand God's will.

Tinkers (2009). Paul Harding.  This lyric novel won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize Award for Fiction.   The character George Crosby is on his death bed experiencing delirium.

Time, memory and perspective shift under his gaze. These are common concerns of older adults, and Harding takes a poetic and philosophical view.  We also meet George's father, Howard and George's unnamed grandfather.

The setting is New England, and the book is filled with poignant descriptions of the landscape in addition to insightful observations about identity, intimacy, and purpose.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (2010).  Published when he was 58 years old, Walter Mosley creates a protagonist is a failing African American man struggling to manage his day-to-day needs as he lives by himself Los Angeles County. at 91, Grey has a network of distant kin--some of whom are trustworthy, some of whom are not.

While surviving is difficult enough, Grey must marshal all the strength to solve a  murder, and the clock is ticking on his own life. While these details sound fantastic, the novel depicts some of the real hardships--physical, mental, social and  financial--that our nation's elders face.

Benediction (2012).  Published when Kent Haruf was 70, this novel depicts the last months of the life of "Dad" Lewis, who owns a hardware store in a small town in eastern Colorado.

While cancer ravages his body, Lewis reviews some key events from his past, tries to get his financial affairs in order, and wrestles over the choices he made as a parent and an employer.  Haruf's novel has a few minor characters who are also evaluating themselves but at midlife when they have a bit more time for a course correction.


Benediction: Lives Reviewed
Books on Aging
Movies about Mature Men Preserving Power


  1. What great reading suggestions. I work with the elderly, most of them on Hospice. I have learned more about life from the dying than I could ever hope to learn from the living.

    1. Doreen: I have heard hospice workers say this. It's great that you have an opportunity to do that work. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I'm so happy that we, as a society, are recognizing the wisdom that comes with age and life lived. I've read a couple of these. Must read more!!!

    1. If you ever read more titles along these lines, come back and tell me the author and title. Thanks for leaving a comment.

  3. What an innovative and thoughtful post. I always enjoyed reading biographies from the past; they provide me with wisdom and perspectives about personal evolution and change. I would have never thought to read bios of aging men as means to learn about the male aging process . .. and state of mind. Great idea.

    1. I'm right behind them as a person in my 50s, so I appreciate the insights of people a bit ahead of me on the path. Thanks for stopping by, Maura.