In an interview in the back of the paperback edition, Canin tells us that his novel is about an elderly and very successful Jewish brewer’s struggle to find “the gentle soul hidden in fear behind the fierce one.” This characterization of his book is enough to tell us that this is an Elderquest, that his hero is seeking at age 78 to replace the values and behaviors that worked for him in youth and midlife with others that are less aggressive, more appropriate, maybe even less guilt-inducing in old age.
But, as Canin also tells us, it is the way in which he presents his hero’s struggle that provides us with a unique, inside perspective on the nature and purpose of this special kind of late-life quest. He foregoes the traditional, chronological narrative and replaces it with short “jags of startling recollection” that plunge us directly into Klienman’s memory and propel us from one place to another as well as forward and backward in time. It’s a dizzying ride, almost bewildering at first (all quests are), for Klienman is leaving the security of home and replacing the stability and predictability of continuity in the present for a plunge into experimentation (bagging groceries at Bread and Circus), new departures (deciding to fly to Japan), intense, almost involuntary memories, extended reflection upon them, a search for pattern, and a new willingness to challenge some of his oldest assumptions so that he might effect significant personal readjustment and transformation.
It’s such an intense, all-involving process, that Klienman (and his readers) cannot return to the safety of the present until Klienman is ready to apply all that he has experienced and learned in the course of his inward and outward journeys, and that doesn’t happen until the final pages of the novel when he boards the plane to return home. Finally, he relives the experience in the cave that has occasioned his whole quest, and then reflects on its new and now positive role in the formation of his character and the new direction in his life.
It’s an approach to the Elderquest that is most reminiscent of Bergman’s use of interactive flashbacks in Wild Strawberries, for both posit our memories of the past as both cripplers and enablers, not as fixed determinants of who we are and what we will always be, but as tentative indicators that can be revisited and revised as we grow older and bring more experience and a wider perspective to their interpretation. That’s why Bergman has Isak interact with the people from his past as the old man he has become so that we can begin to perceive memory as something open-ended and constantly evolving as we continue to return to it. His alternation of Isak’s present-day adventures on his way to Lund with remembered flashbacks and dreams of his past is also the main way in which he indicates that the inward journey into the past is just as crucial and real in an Elderquest as is the actual journey in the present.
Here, Canin’s refusal to identify the novel’s actual present makes the same point that for elderquesters memory can be even more real and have an even greater impact on how we shape our future than can our present activities and behaviors. His dramatization of the recurring patterns in Klienman’s memories—the tackling, shoving, moving forward incidents that occur on the football field at Fordham in his youth, in the cave during his young adulthood in World War II, and on the river bank where he pushes Meyer into the water at the height of his business success—also dramatize how we can interpret these key experiences in one way for years, and can then return to them when we grow older and our needs and desires are changing and interpret them in completely different ways.