As a matter of necessity, the original inspiration for Andrew Sean Greer's forthcoming novel had to be erased from the manuscript.
"I was singing to myself, as I often do, and I started singing Bob Dylan's lyrics, 'I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now,'" the San Franciscan recalls. "And suddenly I thought to myself, 'Could I do that? I mean, literally do that?' It took some wrestling to convince myself that I could." The novel in question, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, due out in February, leaves no room to doubt Greer's cunning as a storyteller. But once the author decided -- "in a fit," as he puts it -- to set the story in 19th-century San Francisco, the Dylan lyric was no longer a suitable epigraph.
Greer's Max Tivoli is a character for whom the incessant passage of years is singularly painful. Born to a wealthy family in 1871, Tivoli is an inexplicable phenomenon, a newborn soul trapped in the body of a wrinkled, milk-eyed old man. He is hidden from sight when callers come, and it isn't until he is nearly three that his condition is identified -- that, as he grows older on the inside, he is growing younger on the outside.
But the quote that actually made it onto the tale's opening pages reveals that this is no mere novel-length Twilight Zone episode. "Love ... ever unsatisfied," it says, quoting Proust, "lives always in the moment that is about to come."
"I tell people it's part Lolita and part The Invisible Man," says Greer, who was writer-in-residence at St. Mary's College this spring and whose debut novel, The Path of Minor Planets, was voted one of the San Francisco Chronicle's Top Five Literary Events of 2001. "But the supernatural situation is really just a structure on which to hang a story of epic love, second chances, and wasted genius."
Tivoli's hankering for a neighbor girl, Alice, is his only passion as he moves through his extraordinary existence, and the same backwards aging that makes him an inappropriate suitor to Alice also allows him to reinvent himself every time they meet. So Tivoli gets three chances to love her, in three distinct ways. It is in these explorations of the different kinds of love that Greer's prose gleams with a persistent inner light. When Max woos a middle-aged Alice, Greer writes, "Real love always has something hidden -- some loss or boredom or tiny hate that we would never tell a soul."
"I think from the moment I came up with the conceit for the book -- that he would grow from old to young -- I decided that his life would be no better than any of ours," Greer says, by way of explaining the selfishness that characterizes Max's life and, specifically, his dealings with Alice. "That's sort of how these stories go. For instance if you read The Invisible Man, you realize that the Invisible Man was really a jerk. I'm not convinced that the things we wish for -- to be younger, more beautiful, or rich -- would ever change us or make us happy."
A writer certainly couldn't wish for a more promising career than Greer's. He studied writing with Robert Coover and Edmund White at Brown University, then earned an MFA from the University of Montana. His short stories have been featured in Esquire, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares.
One of the sheer joys of Max Tivoli is its meticulous re-creation of a bygone San Francisco. Greer's careful and constant research -- in UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, the San Francisco Public Library's Historical Photographic collection, and on the Internet -- allowed the Washington, DC-bred author to learn "just enough to get excited and not so much that I would write a history and not a love story." One of the richest portraits is that of Woodward's Gardens, an amusement park that spanned two blocks, between Valencia and Mission streets. Greer depicts the park with the delight of a child discovering a new land. Woodward's Gardens is where Max's parents take him on his first real outing; it's where he meets his first and only true friend. "It was the place to go for entertainment and art," Greer says. "They had animals, acrobatic acts, and a gallery of paintings that they used to 'freshen' with new details every year. After Woodward died, his daughters sold off the land and all that remains now is a single street named Woodward."
There is a visceral, old-fashioned charm to Greer's rendering of the park, as there is to the novel, which purports to be a memoir Tivoli himself is writing for the eyes of a future generation. At ten, he writes with the maturity of a sixty-year-old man, with all the attendant wisdom and old-world prudishness; he writes from a perspective that has seen the turn of centuries and all their dazzling inventions and social changes. But he is also writing from the standpoint of someone who, because of his unique condition, is forced to live in the new age, instead of just viewing it from a rocking chair, retired and bemused.
"Part of the structure of the book -- and here I fear I'm giving too much away -- is the symmetry of life," says Greer, who will be at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books on February 12. "How an aging man and a little boy can be similar in so many ways. A simplicity to life, I guess. A paring down of needs and wants. A sort of clarity."
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