#WhatImReadingNow: The Land of Steady Habits

And though the deal was a windfall for [the company] and again made Anders a darling, it also gave him a belly of stress weight and a susceptibility to relentless bloody noses. He made a habit of riding home in the bar car and mauling a can of beer nuts and then falling asleep before dinner. He spent his weekends battling weeds and doing violence to a hedge of English laurel, working himself into a heap of grassy sweat and then collapsing on the sofa with an aggravated back. At night, he could barely sleep and found solace in bags of chips fried in hydrogenated oils until, when he was thirty-seven, his heart stopped working.

It happened on the train, in the morning. Mention you have tingling in the shoulder and the whole silver beast is halted and you’re yanked out and thrown onto a stretcher at the East Norwalk station, your undershirt cut open and a paramedic counting and a train full of bovine stares. It could happen to you, he later wished he had shouted, any goddamn one of you! But the fact was that it hadn’t, at least then; it had happened to him, a man with two boys under ten, a man with so much of his life left.

What happened next wasn’t due to the fact that they rushed him to the hospital and shot his veins full of dye, or that they found four plugged arteries, or that they needed to saw through his sternum and open him like a steer, leaving a long glossy seam from his clavicle to his navel. And it wasn’t because of the three softest faces in the world waiting for him when he opened his eyes, or the lectures on diet and lifestyle he received from every cardiologist in the county, or the new lease on life that seemed to come standard with a prescription for betablockers and the nitroglycerine pill he was to wear on a medicalert chain around his neck for the rest of his life. All of those things fell under the codified umbrella of near-death experience; all of those things, on the spectrum of trauma, were totally normal.

No, what caused him to buy a new station car and fall in love with new age music—regardless of his kids’ moaning, regardless of his wife’s ribbing, discs and discs of Yanni and George Winston, of Enya and the smooth sax of later Van Morrison, some merely the sounds of creeks and wind and trees that, if he closed his eyes, could transport him back to the porch of the Longfellow Inn—what sent him west on a two-week trail ride, a group of men on horses with guides that was transformative and lifeaffirming, regardless of its many similarities to the Billy Crystal comedy that came out a few years later; what made him come home and announce to Helene that they were moving to Alaska and living off the land, that the kids would adapt and she would get used to it, that it was the only option he could come up with that would keep him alive—to which she had told him to calm down and poured him a drink and reminded him gently of the quality schools in their district and the community the kids already had and how quickly twelve years would go by—what prompted all of that was returning to work a week after the staples in his chest were removed and finding it exactly the same.

Later, his shrink told him the name for this, for the tendency to feel isolated rather than connected after a seismic event, the tendency to withdraw rather than reach out in the face of death, but the term never felt totally right. What to call the sensation of unlocking your station car in the sucker punch of a winter morning, worrying about your heart rate and the tender scar down your torso, worrying that someone might make you laugh and you would be torn open by your own muscles, and arriving to an unchanged platform of sleepy men with trench coats and wet hair, yawning up the tracks toward New Haven? What to call the trepidation he felt as he climbed aboard that silver worm and then sat as it crawled its way along the coast, all the while worrying that it might happen again, feeling every beat in his ribs as the train swayed and rocked and finally hissed to a stop in the dark tunnels under Grand Central? What to call being carried along, as always, through the scent of burning railroad brakes and up into the high marble chamber, where the frenetic clicking of heels was suddenly a threat and his careful pace created an eddy of beige coats charging through the eastern exit? And what to call the Springer Building, an ugly tiered structure of mirrored glass that the designers had meant to be stately and imposing but was now squat and gaudy and shining like a fleck of mica in the canyon of Lexington?

And what to call the newly promoted Brad French, who greeted him with a get-well card signed by the assistants and a delicate pat on the shoulder, then asked him if he was up for work and announced that there wasn’t really room for halfway, that he really needed everyone to hit the ground running? To say nothing of the work itself—what to call that? He was responsible for millions every week, nearly a billion each year, numbers he had once cited to his father, who early on didn’t understand what Anders did. Now he was citing them to himself while in the men’s room on the twenty-third floor, staring at the white tiles in front of the urinal and feeling as though the doctors had replaced his heart with a bundle of dynamite. A billion dollars. That was something, wasn’t it? It was a way of affecting people and their lives. It was money that went to build pipelines or expand ballparks or revamp zipper production and came back, after all that, profitable. A billion dollars. That was prosperity, wasn’t it? That was enough to affect the whole damn world.

Of course, there was no way to be sure. As he left the men’s room and headed back to his desk, which was in an office large enough to need a decorator, he wondered what to call the feeling of looking at the trophies the company had awarded him, chunks of frosted glass with his name etched in them that had accumulated along the sills and cluttered the tables and, eventually, filled the big echoey drawer of a filing cabinet. What to call the long ride home during which he shut his eyes and heard the chatter around him with new ears, the hymn of decency, the song of work and home, all that consensus about the importance of children and schools and opportunity? And who could disagree with any of that? It was the very basis of civilization. So what to call the fact that it suddenly made him furious?

Twelve more years wasn’t much. Helene was right about that. The previous twelve had gone by relatively quickly. They were a blur, really.

—Ted Thompson, The Land of Steady Habits (Hachette 2014)

Some thoughts about this book:

  • I bought this book because, strangely, I read an article by the author, Ted Thompson, and blogged about it. And because I was kind of charmed by his voice, I looked into the book, and thought I’d read it. I like to support first-time authors. (Of course, we all know that “first-time” isn’t an accurate term, right? He’s been writing for years to be this accomplished.) And, it turns out, I really enjoyed it.
  • The blurb: “Anders Hill, entering his early sixties and seemingly ensconced in the ‘land of steady habits’—a nickname for the affluent, morally strict hamlets of Connecticut that dot his commuter rail line—abandons his career and family for a new condo and a new life. Stripped of the comforts of his previous identity, Anders turns up at a holiday party full of his ex-wife’s friends and is suprised to find that the very world he rejected may be one he needs. Thus Anders embarks on a clumsy, hilarious, and heartbreaking journey to reconcile his past with his present. Like the early work of John Updike, Ted Thompson’s first novel finely observes a man in deep conflict with his community. With compassion for its characters and fresh insight into the American tradition of the ‘suburban narrative,Æ The Land of Steady Habits introduces an auspicious talent.”
  • The land of steady habits—who knew? I’ve never lived in the northeast, so this isn’t an idiom I’d heard. And though the blurb says it’s a nickname for the affluent, morally strict hamlets of Connecticut along the commuter rail line down to Manhattan, this article by the Connecticut state historian says, “When it first appeared widely in print in the early 1800s, the term ‘The Land of Steady Habits’ was associated with Connecticut’s ancient tradition of assuring political stability through repeatedly electing the same officials to high office.” You learn something new every day.
  • This book is basically about a midlife crisis that lasted for twenty years. It made me laugh out loud, and I loved all the characters, even the troublesome ones. You’ve seen the references to Updike and Cheever. I’d add that if you enjoyed Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, you’ll like this. Or Jonathan Franzen. It also reminded me of Michael Dahlie’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living, which delighted me.
  • I love these big, delicious paragraphs, but don’t worry, there’s plenty of clever dialogue too. This just happened to be what I chose.
  • Is this what they call deep POV?

Tweet: The land of steady habits— a nickname for the affluent hamlets of CT—who knew?
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Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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