To Tricia and her coworkers, my mother is not entirely human – not a daughter, not a mother, not a wife. Her past wiped out, she is just another sack of flesh, dehumanized. She has become a freak. Staff members put food in Ellen’s mouth, strip clothes off her body, dress her and lay her in bed – she’s an oversized doll, an animate toy – but she does not belong to their species any longer. I understand this. It’s a human impulse to think: I will never be like that. – from Buffalo Lockjaw, page 111 –
Greg Ames has written a searing, all to real novel about watching someone you love slip into dementia. When James Fitzroy returns to his hometown of Buffalo at Thanksgiving, he finds himself tormented by his mother’s mental and physical decline from Alzheimer’s Disease. He wonders why his mother – a nurse who everyone loved and a woman whose nursing text is still being used to educate new nurses – should have to suffer this indignity, while James wastes his life drinking too much, having meaningless sex and working in a dead end job as a writer of taglines for greeting cards. He also worries about his father who is aging and alone now.
As per usual in his presence, I feel like I’m eight years old again. This is unnatural, I realize, a moral failing, and this tentativeness must end, because I am the stronger man here, young, powerful, intelligent, a representative of the future, and he’s old, decrepit and doddering – he’s literally riding in the passenger seat of life – and it’s my job to worry about him now that he lives alone. What if he falls down and breaks his hip in his bachelor pad? What if he chokes on a TV dinner? It’s time for me to step up and assume my new role in this family. This is my responsibility. Nobody else will do this. Time to become a grown man. But how does one begin? – from Buffalo Lockjaw, page 220 –
It is this misdirected sense of responsibility that compels James to consider ending his mother’s life. He agonizes over how he would do it, or if such an act is even justified.
I sit beside her trying to imagine what she thinks and feels. If it’s true that she experiences no physical pain, and that mentally she is no more cognizant of her condition than a baby is – the baby doesn’t recognize the helplessness of her life because she has nothing to compare it to – then this is my problem and not hers. But if she is suffering with the knowledge of loss, if she recognizes the absence of dignity, which I suspect is the case, then her shame and despair must consume her. And she has nothing but time, the regulated ticking of minutes on a clock, to remind her of that. – from Buffalo Lockjaw, page 117 –
James Fitzroy is not a wholly likable character – he can be crude and he drinks too much, he seems to have no aspirations to raise his life to a higher level – and yet, I found myself empathizing with him and appreciating his deep love and loyalty to his mother. In one scene, he carefully flosses his mother’s teeth, believing she would be ashamed by her poor dental hygiene. James shows compassion even toward other residents at the care home – holding their hands, or speaking to them with empathy. One gets the feeling that here is a young man completely misunderstood for most of his life, and trying now to rectify this.
Interspersed throughout the narrative are clips of other characters talking about Buffalo and the people who live there – at first I wasn’t sure what to make of these interuptions in the novel. But the reader ultimately understands that James was an “urban ethnologist” and these snippets of narrative come from his interview tapes. They lend a surreal touch to the book and offer a glimpse at the personal stories of others living in James’ hometown, but aside from this they seemed a distraction from the real purpose of the novel.
Ames writes with black humor and irony as he explores the controversial subject of assisted suicide for the terminally ill. He does not offer an answer as to whether euthansia is morally right or wrong, but instead opens up a fertile ground for discussion. Buffalo Lockjaw would make a great book club read for this reason. Thematically the novel is about aging, loss, love and the parent/child relationship through time.
Buffalo Lockjaw is a laudable debut and one which captivated me from the beginning because of its authenticity. I not only work with patients suffering dementia in my profession of Physical Therapy, but my father also suffers from progressive dementia because of small vessel disease. Greg Ames has skillfully captured the immense sadness and utter hopelessness of watching a loved one be robbed of their intellect, personality, and dignity because of a disease like Alzheimers.
Recommended with a caution – Ames writes with direct, sometimes unnerving prose which may disturb some readers.