In Stanley Elkin’s story “Perlmutter at the East Pole” (Criers & Kibitzers, Kibbitzers & Criers, 1966), Morty Perlmutter complains on the telephone:
“`I’m very low,’ Morty said again. `I’ve been thinking about you a lot. Today’s my fifty-ninth birthday. I haven’t got any friends, any family. My money is almost gone. My health stinks. I’m restless. Also I’m worried about the synthesis.’”
Never mind about the synthesis. Read the story for that. Morty’s line that always cracks me up is “I’m restless.” This is a complaint? Morty’s an anthropologist. Shouldn’t he know better? Laughing at what we narrowly miss being is always a blessing, even if it’s delusory.
On April 13, 1965, his fifty-ninth birthday, Samuel Beckett began writing his first television play, Eh Joe, devoted to “Joe, late fifties, grey hair, old dressing-gown, carpet slippers, in his room.” Joe might be Morty’s unhappier Irish cousin. The voice of a never-seen woman, a former lover, torments him for thinking he could ever forget her. Joe never speaks and she never stops:
“The best’s to come, you said, that last time . . . Hurrying me into my coat ... Last I was favoured with from you ... Say it you now, Joe, no one’ll hear you ... Come on, Joe, no one can say it like you, say it again now and listen to yourself ... The best’s to come ... You were right for once ... In the end.”
Today is my fifty-ninth birthday and I’m neither restless nor confined to a room, on the cusp of – what? Late middle age? My golden years? Dementia praecox? I’m not Morty or Joe, though I recognize them in the mirror.
I’m feeling closer to John Ruskin, who writes in his diary for Feb. 8, 1878, that he is “thankful to be down at seven in the morning, or only five minutes later, in good active health, ready either for writing or wood-chopping, on my fifty-ninth birthday, and with so much in my hands to do for everybody.”
Of course, by this point Ruskin is already turning quite daft.