YO! I would file this under “ask” but I have too many characters to unload.
Literary critic Dwight Garner wrote a light takedown of the ‘The Mockingbird Next Door’ by Marja Mills (the “unauthorized” biography of Harper Lee) this week, and the review goes off track from the content of the biography to inadvertently reveal Garner’s own distaste for Old People Stuff. Full disclosure: I can’t speak to the content of the review since I haven’t read it yet.
He critiques the voice of the subject Ms. Lee as banal, but the quotes (eg. “Oh, bless his heart.” “Thank you, hon. You are a good egg.” “I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a meal more.” “Oomph. I’m bushed.”) sound a lot like any conversation I have had with my own Grandmother over the past few years. As my Grandmother got into her late 80s, her mobility took a sharp decline and her social experience contracted. Once her memory began to go, we started talkin a whole lotta nothin, trading pleasantries and retelling the same tales on the regular. I do miss my Grandmother asserting her advice and opinions, but this lighter banter is in her comfort zone, and so here we are. If my Grandmother had written a modern classic earlier in her life would I have to be disappointed with her communication style now?
The standout paragraph follows:
“The Mockingbird Next Door” conjured mostly sad images in my mind. Ms. Lee has a regular booth at McDonald’s, where she goes for coffee. She eats takeout salads from Burger King on movie night. When she fishes, she uses wieners for bait. She feeds the town ducks daily, with seed corn from a plastic Cool Whip Free container, calling “Woo-hoo-HOO! Woo-hoo-HOO!” Somehow learning all this is worse than it would be to learn that she steals money from a local orphanage.
Does Garner get the feels from the “sad” activities or the “sad” brands? Having traveled a bit, I know fast food joints can be thriving social space outside of metro areas due to long open hours and free wi-fi, esp in areas where few or limited social amenities exist, and esp for retired folks. To me this reads like a pretty fun list activities for an older person or hell even me. Fishin, ducks, movie night and coffee talk? Sign me up, hon.
Again, there might be some prevailing tone in the source material that shades this content with sadness, but what I read from this reviewer is that being an older human is hard for the rest of us youngsters to see and both Ms. Lee and her unauthorized biographer should keep their voices down about it.
Which brings me to my question…yo, is this ageist?
I’d say yes: Garner is projecting his own negative and condescending assumptions about late life onto Harper Lee’s. It reveals more about him than it does about the author.