In "My Life in the Middle Ages," biographer James Atlas ("Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet," "Bellow: A Biography") provides his candid...
“My Life in the Middle Ages:
A Survivor’s Tale”
by James Atlas
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HarperCollins, 220 pp., $25.95
In “My Life in the Middle Ages,” biographer James Atlas (“Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet,” “Bellow: A Biography”) provides his candid personal spin on midlife neurosis in what he calls a “generational memoir.” A veteran writer with The New Yorker and other national magazines, Atlas knows that micro-details can enliven communal experiences.
So he bares his soul. He says the book is not a confessional, but it often reads that way. The collection of 11 essays are remarkably frank about the perils and angst of middle age — the doubts, regrets, disappointment and, at times, envy.
I felt a twinge of his loss as he wrote of his father’s death. I chuckled as he narrated his shrink-shopping. I winced as his son’s athletic ability surpassed his own and at his account of getting fired at age 50.
While the book tells about passages and milestones of his life, he allows himself occasional sociological musings. While he and his wife made it to their 25th anniversary, many of his friends have divorced. He surmises there may be an inevitable wall that people, especially men, smack into at about 50.
“There’s a sense of shrinking horizons, of possibilities closing down,” he writes. “Life seems static, uneventful; the end of the road is in sight. What better way to shake things up than to tear your life apart in the name of freedom — find a fresh source of adoration, someone new to listen adoringly to the old stories?”
Despite the crystal-clear moments, “My Life in the Middle Ages” is a hit-or-miss journey, like life. Much of his angst and doubt feels like his alone rather than a greater baby-boomer curse.
The book originated from a series Atlas did for The New Yorker. His first article in that series was about “the death of fun”: sort of a Mid-dull Age whine. The series struck a chord with its suggestion that every generation is forced to endure its own obsolescence.
“The greatest challenge of middle age is to accept one’s limitation,” says Atlas. “It’s not easy. In my experience it is the hardest thing of all.”
Richard Seven is a writer for The Seattle Times
Pacific Northwest magazine.