Novelist Rogert Rosenblatt’s memorable “Thomas Murphy” tells the story of an aging poet who sees both the past and the present with a poet’s eye, and relishes every minute.

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‘Thomas Murphy’

by Roger Rosenblatt

Ecco, 210 pp., $24.99

Murph, the protagonist of Roger Rosen­blatt’s new novel, has a voice that is distinct, lyrical, questioning and sometimes desperate. For Murph, as Thomas Murphy is known, is an aging poet, now in his 70s, undergoing tests because of memory lapses and fearful that he has a shrinking brain. “Think of the fullness in forgetfulness,” he says. “Words forgotten can be a pain. But the process of foraging for those words can be thrilling, like foraging for the right word in a line of a poem. The wrong word is wrong, to be sure. Still, it can be a beauty. A voyage. An obscenity.”

Murph is one of a kind, on a voyage of his own. His childhood was spent on Inishmaan, one of the Aran Islands on the west coast of Ireland. He has lived in New York since his 20s and is friend to street people and grandfather to young William, whom he takes for walks and outings. Murph is also antagonist to his apartment superintendent, an irritating man who would like to have Murph ousted from the building.

While Murph contemplates the years he has left, he reflects on his past at a running pace. His beloved wife, Oona, has died; his close friend Greenberg has died; his daughter, Maire, urges him to keep his appointment with a neurologist. Evasive, tough and witty, Murph addresses the reader, recalling experiences that have brought him to this point. “Have I told you about this?” he asks. And jumps from subject to subject while his mind filters, invents and speculates.

There are no dips or lags in tempo in this novel. Rosenblatt is a skilled writer who carries the reader through eras and time zones with never a break in voice. Murph’s personality will not be subdued; he refuses to be silenced. “To walk through the landscape of a life,” he says. “Odd, the scenes and moments that elbow their way to positions of prominence. The dear, quiet morning in the field with my ma. … A saw’s wheezing through a plank of pine. A chastised dog. Cait’s freckled thighs. The blunt smell of dung and oil lamps. … The time in Long Island Sound when Oona learns to swim. You go, girl. … The mud of Inishmaan, thick, dark, descending in layers to the center of the Earth. … Where did the time go?”

He goes forward, turning thoughts inside out, turning questions over, raising bizarre and comic images. But he also raises images of beauty and kindness. Everyday life is examined as it is and as it is not. And then, in a bar, he encounters a man who makes a strange request, which leads Murph to Sarah, a blind woman in her 30s, less than half his age. His friendship with Sarah becomes one of the main threads of the story, though the threads of the past are never let go.

When he is in despair, Murph relies on inventive, cranky humor to get him by. Does he return to Inishmaan or is this a fanciful notion? Whether he does or not, the visit is as real to the reader as it is to him.

Rosenblatt, essayist, memoirist and fiction writer, has created a memorable character with a magnetic personality. “Thomas Murphy” is a eulogy to a man who has followed his own rules and who has learned to live with his deepest regrets.

“It takes a kind of courage to write a poem,” says Murph, as he considers the distance between risk and failure. He allows his thoughts to drift from desperation to longing, but he knows it all amounts to this “dreadful, gorgeous life.”