It’s Barry Groom’s forty-fifth birthday and he’s wondering why his partner of twenty-five years isn’t answering his cell phone. Andy should have been back home by now. So when Barry’s cell rings, he doesn’t even look at the caller id until an unfamiliar voices asks for him and his world explodes. Andy and their two beloved pugs, Gertie and Noel, all dead, crushed by a falling crane downtown. Barry doesn’t even know what they were doing there. From there on out, Barry’s world consists of pain, and loss,and grief and lack of direction. His, no make that their friends and even his mother try to console him but he finds himself to be unconsolable, watching the tv video of the accident over and over again.
Faced with his business he can’t force himself to go to or phone calls he can’t accept, Barry heads off to his and Andy’s home in Key West hoping to find some answers and much needed space. Time spent in Key West only emphasizes his status as the one left behind as he works on chores Andy would have done at their house and runs into friends who haven’t yet heard the news. Another change is needed, this time to New York City where Barry is hoping that old memories are overrun by the crowds, the frantic pace and noise of the City. Trying to embrace change in his life, Barry tries everything from online dating to nudercise in his efforts to recover from grief and move his life forward. But an unexpected event brings him home to where it all started, “back to the town where he grew up for one more ironic twist that teaches him how to say good-bye with grace.”
What an amazing story and one of the hardest reviews I have had to write. For the longest time, I would come to the keyboard to write the review and come up with nothing. Or come up with far too much. And I find that fitting because those are the emotions this book left me with. The first part of the story had me as inconsolable as Barry, my empathy so strongly engaged that I sobbed at his loss and raged at life’s unfairness along with him. At other times, I felt empty, hating to move forward with the book, so indelible is the imprint that Barry, Andy, and his memories leave upon you. Grief is a tough topic and an even tougher thing to get through. Who of us has not lost either a person or a pet and been overwhelmed by the vacancy they left and grief stricken at the thought of not seeing or hearing them ever again? Rodney Ross takes us back to those events in our lives through Barry Grooms and makes us relive it all over again through him. And he does so beautifully, the stages of grief rendered so realistically that I felt I was reading an autobiography instead of a fictional account.
Ross takes one of life’s great unfairnesses “why the one I loved” and gives us Barry’s recovery from the worst horror to happen to him, the loss of his soul mate. In doing so, Rodney Ross gives us a character so real I was convinced he bleeds when cut, gifts Barry with a voice so unforgettable, so persistent in its need to be heard that I would recognize it on the other end of the phone or isolate it in a crowd of New Yorkers. It is one of intelligence, humor, deprecation, and sadness. Barry’s outlook is dry witted, reflective and full of loss, less so once he reaches New York. Here is Barry in his NYC condo, responding to his online dating emails.
“During this I received my first dick pic. I primly respond that I prefer a face pic. I get a second dick pic with a face drawn on it. The lips were especially upsetting.”
A perfect Barryism. I will admit to roaring with laughter through Barry’s dating travails whether it was Hugo who Barry thought was “furry as in bear” turns out to be a Furry complete with Cousin Itt’s slippers. There’s Olaf the fire eater, Bryce the actor who thinks Madonna was the first Evita and can’t place the name Patti LuPone, and Boaz the beer bully. And then there is Barry attempting to meet other and exercise during an hysterical session of Nudercise! Yes, it is exactly what one thinks it is. This includes a hard look at his body and a Nudercise participant who uses the time to masturbate instead of centering himself, directly on the mat in front of Barry. Through every humiliating episode and outrageous encounter, I felt myself nodding in sympathy and acknowledgement of the pitfalls and ego deflating scenes that dating after 40 brings with it. Then Barry hooks up with the store Theatrilicious, a theater district shop that sells or rather stores bits of everything Broadway. Its owner is Marjorie Lewis-Kohl, in her sixties, painfully thin with capes that vary with her moods. Soon Barry is working there, accumulating employees that start to look like friends and his life starts to fill up.
There are so many remarkable characters in this story, none of whom ever feel anything less than real as well. From Mr Floor 14 whose daily personal grooming habits in the elevator signal the way Barry’s day is going to turn out to Barry’s mother, Aunt Sarajane, Artie from the store, Marjorie herself and Jarod Pugh, the young limousine driver Barry starts to date. Each is so fiercely unique, so strongly authentic that I kept going back to the bio to make sure this was fiction. And both Key West and New York City acquit themselves beautifully as main characters as well. I love Key West and Ross gets the tone exactly right, no small wonder as he lives there. But Rodney Ross must also spend an equal amount of time in NYC, as his love affair with the city comes across as strongly as the people inhabiting his pages.
Life is full of surprises, some bad, some not so good and some wonderful. Ross recognizes this and brings it into Barry’s tale in full measure. Everytime I think someone or something is solidly known, Ross upends it and gives us a different perspective on that person or that event. We start off that way and we end there as well. In the beginning, Barry is standing in front of a counter as the store clerk says “You change.” At the end of his story, we find ourselves with Barry standing there again, waiting patiently as “Bunwoman” taps the register again. “You change”. And by then, Barry has and so have we by meeting him and living through his journey with him. When I picked up this story and the tears started falling, I never thought that I would find myself missing Barry. And now 340 pages later, I do. I miss him terribly and wish him well in his new life. I know I will be skipping back to The Cool Part of His Pillow for small visits, something I could never have imagined when I started. Some might ask if this is a love story and I will say that it is but not in exactly the way you might think. It is a love sonnet, it is an elegy, it is a love affair with new beginnings while never losing sight of the loves of the past. Pick this book up. Don’t let the fear of loss and the pain of grief in the beginning pass by this remarkable story of recovery and perseverance done with love and humor. It is one of my top books of the year. I think it will be yours too. Bravo, Mr. Ross, bravo.
Cover: Art by Anne Cain. Simple, elegant and haunting.
Available at Dreamspinner Press, Amazon, and All Romance Ebooks.