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Short Takes

By Ron McLarty
Viking, 280 pp., $24.95

I'm a sucker for this kind of guy: tough-talking, tender-hearted, self-mocking, loyal to his friends, grateful for the love of women, unashamed of his past, haplessly engaged in the present.

Jono Riley, the hero of Ron McLarty's novel, is a 50-year-old bartender and sometime actor in New York City. Called back to his childhood home, working-class East Providence, R.I., by the death of his first love, Marie, he finds himself investigating not only her death but also several other suspicious deaths. Marie dies when a bullet that has been lodged in her body for 40 years suddenly moves. A traveler, such a bullet is called. In reconstructing her death, Jono recalls his adolescence in the 1960s. The characters and events are stunningly recalled by themselves, then made unforgettable by their relation to one another. All the pieces fit snugly together. This novel has a great voice, a great plot, great suspense, a great evocation of time and place.

Calling It Quits: Late-Life Divorce and Starting Over
By Deirdre Bair
Random House, 352 pp., $25.95

Most people divorcing late in life (in their 50s, 60s, 70s) are happier. Only older women, left by husbands and living alone in reduced circumstances, feel unhappy. Bair's study, based on an AARP survey and her own 400 interviews, is anecdotal rather than scientific.

Older divorced men and women both fear loneliness but soon come to savor their freedom. For women, freedom means control, independence, a release from caretaking. For men, freedom means a relief from monetary and social obligations. Surprisingly, more women than men initiate late divorces. Men who married in the 1950s and '60s are often clueless when their wives leave them. Having done what they thought was expected of them, they don't understand what their wives mean by lack of communication. The bad news is that the children of late divorce are miserable.

Bair is concerned about the future of long marriages, as baby boomers who feel entitled to happiness insist on having another chance to find fulfillment. At the same time, she admires the resilience of older men and women, their willingness to take risks to reinvent themselves at any age.

The Goldfish Went on Vacation: A Memoir of Loss (and Learning to Tell the Truth About It)
By Patty Dann
Trumpeter, 166 pp., $18

"The goldfish went on vacation" is the explanation given by a confounded mother to ease the loss of her child's pet. The author of this memoir opted for a different approach. When Patty Dann's Dutch husband, Willem, the father of Jake, their 3-year-old adopted son, was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor, she chose to avoid such cowardice and confront the terrors ahead straight on.

As Willem loses language, memory, mobility; undergoes radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery; and, after 15 months, dies, Dann talks frankly with Jake, recognizing that if the child can learn the name Tyrannosaurus rex, he can learn the term "glioblastoma." Jake participates in his father's treatment, accepts the changes in his abilities , creates his own games, stories, and rituals. It seems clear that he will have an easier time managing his loss than those children protected from the truth . Dann, who teaches writing, knows how to craft a story, how to choose the details and report the conversations. Jake's explanation for his father's death at 50 is "I think sometimes God runs out of numbers."

Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York. See "Bookings," Page F6, for information on a local appearance by Ron McLarty.