Monday, August 1, 2011

Deaf Sentence

Poor Professor Bates! The hero of David Lodge's Deaf Sentence won't see sixty again and, in a synergistic purgatory that may seem familiar to aging boomers, he's uncomfortably sandwiched in between the needs of adult children, concerns about his ailing father, a domestic role reversal prompted by his wife's business, and an infirmity of his encroaching old age that drives the action of this hilarious novel: after years of swimming against the tide of hearing loss, Desmond Bates must accept the fact that he is all but deaf.

It's a problem, all right. Weary of the constant professional humiliations posed by his deafness, Bates throws in the towel and retires from his teaching position at a university in Northern England. But, retirement simply presents its own set of hearing challenges. Hearing aids provide little relief so he tends to just wing it in social situations. Pretending he can hear when he actually has no idea what's just been said is frequently funny and occasionally catastrophic,
and catastrophe is what ensues when an attractive American coed accosts him at a faculty cocktail party. He politely assents to whatever it is she just said, only to find himself in a world of trouble when it becomes clear that what she wants is his supervision of her PhD research on suicide notes. Once the dismal truth dawns he tries to extricate himself, but Alex Loom is a piece of work: she's relentless, unprincipled and a sexual predator, and luckless Desmond Bates is in way over his head.

What's a hard-of-hearing former linguistics professor to do? Drinking is an option, but not one his wife favors. A lecture tour in Poland is promising until all hell breaks loose on the home front while he's away--and as is usually the case for him, communication ranges from challenging to impossible. Is there a remedy for the infirmities of age and their attendant difficulties?  Lodge tells an entertaining tale made up of equal parts wit, humor, and poignancy and gives us a highly sympathetic character in Desmond Bates, who struggles to keep his upper lip stiff while his muddled private universe shrinks and his fortunes grow ever more outrageous.


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