The novelistic treatment of characters who are elderly, or at least mature, forces a writer into some predictable choices—just as, you might argue, is the case in our real life. The road in the rearview mirror, of course, is infinitely longer than that seen ahead through the windshield. So will
we look back or forward? When we look back, will it be with nostalgia or regret? If we look forward, will it be with dread or hope? Dave Williamson in Dating goes in both directions. And the optimists in his audience should know that he goes backwards more with nostalgia than regret and forward with infinitely more hope than dread.
After almost 50 years of marriage, Barbara, the wife of Williamson’s hero, Jenkins, dies. Jenkins, now into his seventies, is on his own. Yes, he has a couple of grown children and a delightful grandchild he can visit and who sometimes visit him. But other than that, occasionally playing some golf, attending dinner parties at the homes of an ever-diminishing circle of long-time friends and bumping around his big suburban house where the shelves remain filled with pictures of Barbara, what will he do? Given the nudge by this circle of friends—or at least the women in it—one question he faces is whether or not he might “date.” This then becomes the theme, as well as the title of Williamson’s book and, although it might seem a narrow or even shallow approach, dating—we realize on some reflection—is many things. It is a way of expanding one’s world by meeting and ultimately seeking intimacy with new people; it is looking for love or sex as well as perhaps affirming one’s identity; its rituals serve as a succinct window into a specific time, place and culture. In Jenkins’s case, dating is also something he is quite good at and—save for the 50 years he was married to Barbara—what he very much liked to do. So why not?
Yet the hurdle at this stage of his life is huge because, as both he and the reader know, the process once embarked on will lead not just to his asking women to go out with him to movies for the first time since he borrowed his father’s Austin for the purpose. He will be forced to confront the issues of loneliness, his need—or not—for companionship, and his sexual longings and desires.
First, though, we get the rearview mirror. Jenkins’s memoir revisits himself when he went on dates as a 1950s teenager. For those old enough to remember the TV show Leave It to Beaver or the comic strip Archie, this is a seemingly endless tour through the worlds of Wally Cleaver and Eddie Haskell, Archie and Jughead (albeit in Winnipeg) with a randy Bob Jenkins perpetually hoping to cop a feel with some female classmate or other. There is something a bit chaste and old-fashioned about it. Jenkins’s world is exceedingly one-dimensional: white bread post-war suburban. The furthest he strays toward any edge is when he briefly tries to date an employee from his father’s factory, a young French-Canadian woman with whom he fantasizes swimming up against more dangerous shoals. But not much more happens with her than with his high school girlfriends.
Save for a few observations like this one where Williamson reminds us that in the 1950s “petting—as the Sociology books called sexual touching—was not foreplay. Petting was an end in itself,” this is pretty standard stuff. It is really only when we join Jenkins retaking the plunge 50 years later that our interest perks up. The first thing we find out is that going on dates as a 70-year-old is just as awkward and potentially humiliating as when Jenkins was 16 or 17. A movie date with a woman he meets at a dinner party has him worrying about the sodium in the popcorn and the amount of liquid in the big drink that will send him to the bathroom more than once before the film ends.
There is a great deal that can be speculated on—and has been—through psychology, sociology and the arts about the lives of the elderly. By Himself: The Older Man’s Experience of Widowhood, is a study undertaken by St. Thomas University professor Deborah K. Van den Hoonaard, to explore masculinity in old age through the experiences of interviewed widowers. One of its reviewers made this brutal and dispiriting observation: “old men are often unable to meet the requirements of hegemonic masculinity leaving them vulnerable to a loss of status as men.” In art—think here of books by everybody from Philip Roth (Everyman) to Gabriel García Márquez (Memories of My Melancholy Whores) to Henning Mankell (The Troubled Man)—there is plenty of similar doom and gloom. Dave Williamson, though, is not doom and gloom. He is a comedic writer, which is, of course, another choice an author can make. This is not to say that he seeks the belly laugh but, with a rather fine touch, he sketches a world that elicits the smile or even the giggle of recognition. Although it might bother some readers by forestalling more existential musing, the comedic approach has the substantial advantage of keeping a character in the moment. On an outing that offers the surprise possibility of sex with a woman who invites him back to her condo, Jenkins has a touchingly laughable moment:
I untie my tie, undo the top button of my shirt and take off the tie. I undo my belt, unbutton and unzip my trousers, while my thoughts alternate between This is ridiculous and This is amazing! I step out of the trousers—oh, no! I forgot about my elastic support stockings. They are so comfortable, the way they let your legs breathe like a second epidermis, but I can’t leave them on. It’ll be like wearing an I am an old man sign. The problem is, I don’t have the rubber gloves with me, the ones you’re supposed to use to put the stockings on and take them off. They help you avoid a snag or a tear.
Dating made me think about television programs (generally British and still shown in reruns) like As Time Goes By (with Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer) or Waiting for God (with Stephanie Cole and Graham Crowden). It also explored issues depicted more recently in John Madden’s film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and the book it was based on, Deborah Moggach’s These Foolish Things. People considered at one time to be of an “advanced age” do, in fact, indulge in aspirations, dreams and possibilities for new life, and it is their project to seek them out, grasp them, not be deterred by either fear—or common sense. Yes, the inevitable end might be only a short distance off, but life is for the living, a philosophy very much in play as the vast demographic of baby boomers enter their senior years.
Williamson manages to save his story from the lurking risk of being slightly superficial or even banal through lengthy anxiety-filled internal monologues on such things as the leg aches his hero experiences in the middle of the night after his first unexpected sexual encounter followed by an invitation from his date—20 years younger—to sleep over. You might say that a person’s anxieties are no laughing matter, but at the same time it takes a certain kind of maturity to see the funny in our situations and laugh at ourselves, even right through to the bitter end—which perhaps need not be so bitter.