Monday, April 07, 2008

In Memoriam: Jon Hassler, 1933-2008

I learned last week that one of my favorite authors, Minnesotan novelist Jon Hassler, has died. He was hailed as "the best novelist we've had of ordinary life in Minnesota," and the New York Times lauded him as "Minnesota’s most engaging cultural export.”

One of my high school English teachers recommended him to us, but it was not until college that I actually started reading his work, beginning with his contemporary classic Staggerford. He provided a far more realistic portrait of small-town Minnesotan life than anything by Garrison Keillor. Furthermore, Hassler was a committed Catholic and wrote with a profound sense of morality and integrity. His characters, while flawed, wrestled seriously with life, faith, right and wrong. One of his most perceptive novels was North of Hope, in which he explores a priest's vocation and relationship with a girl he almost dated back in high school. He also offered a wonderful coming-of-age story in Grand Opening, and a complex love triangle in The Love Hunter. He poked fun at academia in Rookery Blues and The Dean's List, and he meditated deeply on aging in novels like Simon's Night and his latest book, The New Woman. (Hassler just completed a final novel, Jay O'Malley, shortly before his death.)

I met Jon Hassler once at a booksigning at a Twin Cities bookstore some years back. He read from his latest novel and graciously signed several books for me. I now own his complete works, mostly first editions, including his young adult novels, essays and short story collections. He is a treasure, and one of the finest Midwestern novelists of the latter part of the 20th century.

The following are some comments I posted back in 1997 about The Dean's List:
As a displaced Minnesotan, I always enjoy revisiting my home state via the novels of Jon Hassler. Like coming home for the holidays, this book evokes the mixed emotions of anticipation and disappointment, the joy and frustration of renewing relationships with the relatives, and the uncomfortable reality that time takes its toll on the ones we love.

Hassler fans will find in The Dean's List another enjoyable trip to the now-familiar small town of Rookery. But this book is unlike its predecessors in that it may be Hassler's last outing to the Badbattle River valley. Readers may not know that Hassler has Parkinson's disease. And the awareness of his mortality seeps through the pages of this book.

While all of his books are to some degree autobiographical, we see in The Dean's List a greater sense of authorial self-revelation. Leland Edwards, the Icejam Quintet alumnus and now dean of the college, is a frustrated academic-turned-administrator struggling to keep his school above water. He encounters his hero, Richard Falcon, a Frost-esque poet working on his magnum opus. Edwards decides to revitalize the good name of Rookery State by bringing the esteemed poet to campus for a rare reading.

Little does Edwards know that Falcon has his own struggles, not the least of which is the onset of Parkinson's disease. And in these two characters we get a glimpse of Jon Hassler's own plight. Both Edwards and Falcon--and Hassler himself, we might surmise--are fighting to achieve a sense of purpose, meaning, accomplishment and lasting significance at a point in their lives where the clock is ticking and the odds are against them. Will they achieve their goals? Will they complete the tasks that lie before them? And will they be remembered when they are gone?

It is these elements that make this novel an intriguing read. True, it lacks some of the power and beauty of his earlier novels--but this too, is illustrative of the trauma we experience as we approach the end of life. Can we find meaning and significance in our midlife and waning years? This novel provides insights well worth contemplating, from one who well knows what it feels like to be there.

Thanks for all your writing, Jon. I'm glad that your characters will live on through your books, and that you shared the hope of Christian resurrection.

1 comment:

heather said...

It's sad when heroes pass. Not just sad but wrong. They're supposed to be bigger than life, and by extension, bigger than death.
I didn't know of Jon Hassler. I added him to my book list. Thanks for the recommendation.