The Grace of the Ginkgo
Michael R. Hardesty
Old Stone Press, 2015
I don’t think David Foley, the narrator and protagonist of Michael R. Hardesty’s novel The Grace of the Ginkgo, would be a person I could tolerate. In fact, I’m certain that Foley with his boorish humor and firmly entrench egoism would be an individual I would loathe to be around. Yet this element makes for a great character in fiction. The fact is readers will be unable to not emotionally and morally engage him. The strength of Hardesty’s novel lies in his characterization, its realism and honesty.
I’m hesitant to call the novel autobiographical in the sense that I very much doubt Foley is a mere stand-in for the author. In another sense, however, the story told in the first person and covering Foley’s last twenty-four years is a sort of autobiography. I admire just how deeply Hardesty crafted his character, how vivid he’s written.
The novel’s premise is simple enough: Foley’s son dies in the first Gulf War leaving behind a pregnant wife who then dies during childbirth. Foley, a 51-year old retired divorcee, steps up to raise his new granddaughter Liesl.
There is, strictly speaking, no plot. Rather, we get a narrative moving between vignettes chronicling Foley’s parenting of Liesl. There is his constant tension with the religious portion of Liesl’s family (her mother’s side) who are stridently Catholic. Hardesty does a good job of painting this side of the family resisting caricature while still offering a critical eye. It’s Foley who fails to be anything more than a vocal, in-your-face atheist making even the least significant interactions tiresome. Foley’s brand of atheism makes him into a caricature as it’s really just thinly veiled anger and resentment, which means his accurate reasoning is just a tool used to fan his own ego.
Too often, Foley’s insufferable and unfounded superiority sours the life being lived around him. Perhaps the best example of this is Foley’s love of classical music and opera. Cultivating a similar enjoyment in Liesl, by encouraging her to play instruments and by exposing her regularly to the finer musical arts, is some wonderful parenting. Yet Foley is able to be both snobbish and base when he attends a classical concert of the music of The Eagles. Foley’s enjoyment is two fold: he gets to hear the pop music he loves done in classical terms while at the same time mocking those he sees as low brow who were drawn to the orchestral event. It is the kind of act that can most generously be described as curmudgeonly, but in a bitter tone rather than an endearing one.
Foley is a wealthy baby boomer with a late in life child. This is a situation that has become increasing more common over the last twenty-five years. Similarly, over the last twenty-five years more grandparents are raising grandchildren than ever before. Hardesty is able to braid these two cultural ticks together to craft his unique novel. There are some anachronisms (online shopping in 1991, pre-teens with cellphones prior to 2000), suggesting the novel may have been stronger if its setting was more contemporary, but this is a quibble.
A more significant criticism is that we never really get to see Foley raise Liesl, rather just navigate his life with Liesl at this side. His bad habits remain and even heighten. This isn’t a story about how raising a child as a single grandfather changes a man. If anything, it’s one showing just how unchanging a man can be. When he tasers a man after egging on his road rage, when he incessantly teases the maid of romantic interest, and when he finally decides that he is judge, jury, and executioner of a serial wife beater, we aren’t seeing a noble hero but rather a vindictive one.
Because the narrative is exclusively told through Foley’s point of view, we never really get a full picture of who Liesl is. Events of her life take a backseat to the events of Foley’s life wherein she is just the primary. Make no mistake, Foley is a doting and loving caretaker expressing genuine affection for his granddaughter. But the story he tells isn’t one where she is the center of the universe; it’s one where she is the largest body orbiting him.
The ‘grace’ of the title is Foley’s last act, one that like all of his actions throughout the novel is two-fold: he gives to those closest to him and takes from those farthest from. The pleasure in reading Hardesty is in engaging the character of David Foley, of wrestling with just the kind of person he is. David Foley is deeply flawed yet able to mirror to us our own casual humanity.
The Grace of the Ginkgo is a novel that breaks out of the inspirational fiction genre thanks to Hardesty’s knack for crafting a character.
Michael R. Hardesty is a graduate of the University of Louisville and holds a Certificate of Writing in long fiction from Stanford University. He is retired from his marketing communications firm, Black & White, and lives in Louisville, KY, where his favorite activity is hobnobbing with his three grandchildren.
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