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NEW YORKER Stories

Jonathan Lethem

"Ava's Apartment"

May 25, 2009

A New York fable, "Ava's Apartment" imagines a city in which some apartment buildings are cordoned off because their foundations have been undermined by extraordinary snowstorms, while other apartment buildings are converted into shelters for abandoned dogs. The protagonist, "Perkus Tooth, the wall-eyed former rock critic," is a tenant in one of the former who is forced to take shelter in one of the latter. He welcomes the upset:

Perkus Tooth had already been at a watershed, wishing to find an exit from himself, from his life and his friends, his tatter of a career to shed it all like a snakeskin.

Rejecting the help that his "normal" but compromised friends might provide, he turns to a squatter called Biller. How Perkus knows Biller is never explained, and this only enhances Biller's elfin charm. When Perkus tracks Biller down at what turns out to be a dog shelter, Biller arranges for dry clothes Perkus has been tramping through snowdrifts and nourishment and a very soft bed. It doesn't dawn on Perkus right away that the Ava whose bed it is is a dog a pit bull, to be exact. Although Ava is fierce with most living creatures, she seeks only love from human beings, and the body of the story relates the stages of a kind of rest cure, or a reset if you like, in which Perkus's life is reduced to the exact "bare minimum" that equals the limits of his depressed, migraine-befogged capacities. He is fed by Biller and consoled by Ava. This goes on for nearly a week.

There is nothing surreal about Mr Lethem's treatment. Volunteers visit the dog shelter twice a day to walk the inmates and to fill bowls with dog food. They have learned to overlook the occasional human squatter so long as the occasional human squatter is not intrusive. Perkus is certainly not intrusive, but as he regains his strength or his grip or whatever it is that his old way of life has depleted, he bobs up out of his funk as helplessly as a buoy. He asks Ava's walker for her leash, so that he can walk her. Thus begins his retour la vie.

On the street she was another dog, with little regard for Perkus except as the rudder to her sails, their affair suspended until they returned indoors. ...

Perkus learned to which patches of snow-scraped earth Ava craved return, a neighborhood map of invisible importances not so different, he decided, from the magazine stand where he preferred to snag the Times, to H&H Bagels or the Jackson Hole burger mecca. Perkus never veered in the direction of Eighty-Fourth Street, though, and Ava never happened to drag him there.

Although there is no tonal shift in the prose, Perkus's re-engagement with the city is registered by a change in his thoughts. Whereas at the beginning he seems determined not only to accept but to ratify whatever happens to him, as if he were some sort of panhandler Pangloss, he comes, toward the end, to resist systematic passivity. When Ava's walker, a woman called Sadie, who not only used to be in a band but also faithfully read Perkus's reviews, begins to get friendly, Perkus holds back.

Perkus, who didn't really want to believe that when his audience made itself visible again it would resemble somebody's lesbian aunt, sensed himself ready to split hairs...

And, soon enough, Ava is dragging Perkus back to his old neighborhood, where she helps him to find the least compromised of his old friends.

I read "Ava's Apartment" almost as a medical prescription calling for a drug not yet on the market, but one whose effects might, given some thought, be simulated with available resources. Everyone in Manhattan feels like Perkus sooner or later; the city's allure tempts us all to the brink of exhaustion. "Ava's Apartment" suggests that a similarly-afflicted New Yorker might try to find somebody with a small flat, a robust dog, and a plane ticket to a distant sabbatical. The only rule would suit you as well as it would your absent host:

[Sadie] plopped herself down now, on a chair that Perkus had never pulled out from under the table. He still used the apartment as minimally as possible, as if he were to be judged afterward on how little he'd displaced.

If ever there were a bedtime story for grown-ups, this is it, and, as such, it is best taken first thing in the morning.

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