Coping With Death, Possessing a Life

The Letter Left to Me

By Joseph McElroy

New York: Alfred A. Knopf

$ 16.95

THE theme of children dealing with a parent's death is timeless in literature, but in danger of being rendered trite through overuse. In The Letter Left to Me, Joseph McElroy avoids cliches by developing this theme in a unique and effective manner. The novel centers on letter from a father, written a few years before his death, to his teen-aged son. McElroy's choice of plot saves his novel from becoming another repetitive reflection on dealing with death.


Ownership becomes one of the most important concepts in the novel as it traces the course of the letter's dissemination. The letter becomes truly a letter left "to me," instead of "for me," as control over it passes from the protagonist's hands. When the book opens, the boy's mother has just handed the boy the letter, and immediately he is caught up in its contents and its history.

His reflections on the letter become the jumping off point for the liberal rush of free association that follows. We follow the boy's thought process as he tries to reconcile his views of his father with those of his friends and family. We sense his uncertainty when, suddenly, the letter passes out of his control, and is copied and sent to numerous relatives and friends of the family. Each of these has some comment to make on the letter that the boy feels was meant only for him. Uncertain how this development occurred, the boy watches passively, unhappy but somehow unable to halt the flow of events.

McElroy shows the boy's vacillations about the sending of the letter with credibility and sensitivity. Although the boy attempts to be understanding about his mother's and grandparents' decision to share the document, he is never certain what gives his family the right to examine and discuss this relic of his father's that he feeels was meant to speak directly to him.

Because it is the only meaningful talisman remaining to him after his father's death, every detail of its history becomes sacred. He constantly tries to recreate the letter's origins, to determine whether his mother knew about its existence before he found her with it, and to trace its journey from the safe where it was first kept to the desk drawer where it was after his father's death. He says, "I did not see my mother actually find the letter. Come across it; locate it. I'm building backwards again." Toward the end of the novel, the boy has begun to assimilate his varying pictures of his father, but he is still fixated on the letter itself.

"Was the letter written to me? What about that? (Passed to me in my sleep, a neglected dream, or it made too much sense, or made too much of me.) Safely deposited in a bank. Withdrawn to a drawer of the excellent desk in the living room exactly when?"

MCELROY writes in a first-person stream of consciousness that draws in the reader, seeming to replicate the confused and wandering form that a child's thoughts might plausibly take after a parent's death. At times the style grows annnoyingly Salinger-esque, and is peppered with italics and occasional self-conscious introspection: "And I said, `My father passed away last night.' I who of all people know enough to say 'died': yet said `passed away."' But for the most part the flow of free association is effective.

As the boy changes his way of adapting to death, McElroy shifts the tone of the novel. The first chapters are a monologue, mirroring the isolation and entrapment that the protagonist feels. Later, McElroy inserts dialogue into the text, a change that reflects the boy's attempts to adjust to his father's death and to the dissemination of the letter.

The boy begins to shift his focus away from ownership of the letter, and he begins to directly confront his own relationship with his father. Part of him wishes to see it as a work of love: "If the letter is attention given to me, sending it out in all these copies is proof, or is giving my attention to those on the list," he says, trying to rationalize his mother's decision to share the letter.

But even as he reads it, and rereads it, searching for tidbits of love or caring, there are shreds of doubt in his mind. His memory betrays him, and his image of his father becomes confused with that of those around him. His fears are nearly realized at the end of the novel, when an acquaintance blankly tells him, "`It's not an affectionate letter.'"

Another part of the boy is tempted to view the letter as do his friends and relatives. They see it as a work of art as well as proof of love, and toss out comments like, "'Your father wrote extremely well,'" or "'You couldn't have had a better father.'" But the son of the writer is not content with this interpretation. His father becomes "the writer of the letter" rather than "his father."