IN FICTION, DEATH is habitually the conclusion of a tale, not its subject. Whether our favorite characters fall beneath the wheels of a train or expire on a ventilator, they all die in the end. Occasionally a writer comes along who makes death a broader metaphor for life. Lorrie Moore did so in her acclaimed 1998 collection Birds of America, while William Wharton treated the subject with bathos in his 1981 novel Dad. Now, with her latest book of short stories, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, Amy Bloom plumbs the depths of ultimate loss without forcing sentimentality upon her readers.
Bloom's most formidable weapon against sappiness is her humor, a wry, crackling wit that keeps us on the verge of laughter. Unlike Moore, who sometimes preens for a snicker, Bloom catches us off guard with her understated irony. In "The Gates Are Closing" a woman whose lover suffers from Parkinson's disease feels starved for support. When her mother rebuffs a muted request for empathy, the woman sardonically observes, "I sometimes think that my mother's true purpose in life, the thing that gives her days meaning and her heart ease, is her ability to torture me in a manner as ancient and genteelly elaborate as lace making." In "Rowing to Eden" the husband and best friend of a woman fighting breast cancer toss catty jokes back and forth while awaiting test results at the hospital. Away from the battleground, however, they form a tenuous bond on their hopes and fears.
In Bloom's universe, humor is death's twin and constant companion; together they lurk the corridors of terminal wards and oncology units, darting into the rooms of patients who languish under the baleful eyes of their families. Throughout this collection, grieving creates strange bedfellows. A straight man and a lesbian share an erotic moment; a woman eyes her transsexual daughter's body with envy; and a mother and son wind up in bed together. While some of Bloom's scenarios feel contrived at first--the title story involves a mother trying to coach her daughter through a sex change--they pack an emotional wallop by their conclusion.
Bloom's ultimate achievement in A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You is to prove that our lives persist in the same surprising and sad ways during illness, whether we are straight or gay, confined to our beds or walking boldly among the healthy. We are not always contrite at death's door, and the people left behind do not always forgive our sins.