He was gone, “his saxophone, Betty, strapped around his neck…”
When first I decided to read this book, I was curious as to what sort of point of view the author, Johan Twiss, could possibly employ to tell the story of a friendship between a young man trapped in his mind by Cryptococcal Meningitis and an old man trapped in his memories by dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.
We meet Aaron Greenberg on this fourteenth birthday, having been already immobilized for two years by Meningeal paralysis. His aging parents, unable to care for him physically or emotionally, have parked him in a nursing home. Aaron endures a lifetime of bad television, noise, and ignorant medical personnel treating him as if he were a vegetable in the first few weeks of confinement. They never consider that his cerebrum might be humming along just fine, even though his cerebellum was impaired by disease. The exception is Barry, the Janitor, who is a musician, too, and talks to Aaron as he would to anyone.
Then Aaron’s world changes forever. He gets a room mate, Solomon Felsher, formerly a famous jazz saxophonist.
Twiss takes his cue from Euripides and introduces the novel’s dei ex machinis: there are two. His characters discover not only can they communicate telepathically but also they can insert simulacra of themselves into alternate historical timelines, so closely interwoven that it is nearly impossible to separate past from present. Aaron sets off on a trip to Yankee Stadium with a youthful Solomon selling newspapers; they take boxing lessons; go to see Jack Dempsey box the “Wild Bull Firpo”; court Solomon’s future wife, Dolores. Aaron finds himself with Solomon in the foxholes of France during WWII; they play in jazz bands, Aaron rapturously released from the bonds of his illness, playing the trombone with abandon; and they share other adventures too numerous to mention in a review. Strangely, the devices work. Twiss’s narrative carries us and his characters along to meet F.Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, the 1989 earthquake in CA, and a Valentine’s Day Dance at the nursing home with equal ease. The author treats his characters with love and respect, their disabilities transformed and disarmed.
Twiss deftly examines some of the existential and spiritual choices we are forced to make when we, ourselves, or our loved ones face mortality sooner than expected.
“Why did this have to happen? I thought. Why did any of it have to happen? Why did I get sick and become paralyzed? That wasn’t fair. And why does Solomon have to suffer like this? Why? I sat in silence, pondering these questions, when a new train of thought hit me, like a whisper from my mind. It was a moment of clarity that I wasn’t prepared for. If I had not been sick, I never would have met Solomon. This thought struck me like a javelin to the heart. I mulled over what it meant. If given the option, would I trade the last two years with Solomon in exchange for a healthy, perfect body?”
4 Years Trapped in My Mind Palace is part historical novel, part philosophical novel, and part common sense novel about how people with disabilities should be treated.
I enjoyed reading this book.