Contrary to the codes of cliché, there’s more to men at midlife than Ferraris and pharmaceuticals. In his fifth book, the excellent short story collection The End of the Ice Age, Terence Young trains his sharp eye on the tricky state of being between young and old. His meaningful stories catalogue an array of possible experiences that reach beyond the platitudes so heavily relied upon by lazy advertisers, and reveal more nuance than can be expressed in 30 seconds.
Not every man has a so-called crisis, not every man acts out upon reaching a certain age. Some don’t even notice they are aging at all. In the book’s title story, an unnamed he is informed by his lover, an unnamed she, “Your problem is you still don’t think you’re old.” Indeed, he observes, he does feel like he’s younger than everyone else, even those who are officially younger, but he’s perplexed as to why he should consider it a problem. With this character who feels immune to getting older, as if he alone is capable of resisting the march of time, Young alludes to our tendency to feel self-important. He shows, however, that the clock is undeniably ticking, unstoppable, literally and figuratively. The lover is too absorbed in her compulsive reading to ever check the time. Instead, she repeatedly asks Mr. Ageless to check for her. Even if he doesn’t get the message, the reader does. And with a deft switch to the present tense for the last sentence of the story, Young reminds us time stops for no one, not even his own characters.
Resentment and redemption figure importantly in “Fair Market Value.” Ted, married with two children, has an epiphany when his childhood home unexpectedly goes up for sale: the reason “he’s never been truly happy all these years” was his parents’ sale of the place and his subsequent departure from it. To right the wrong, he buys it. Ted’s decision constitutes a move to a new town for his family. It quickly becomes his wife and children’s turn to bear a grudge; she for the costly and time-consuming renovations the old house requires and they, more significantly, for the uprooting. Both kids talk of buying back their own old house when they are old enough, and the cycle of indulgence and injury is firmly set in motion.
Other themes treated to Young’s precision include mortality angst (“Fair Enough,” “That Time of Year,” “Last of the Silent Movies”), the search for meaning in one’s existence (“Dream Vacation,” “Suburbs Going Down”), the unease of bumping into a past lover (“Mole”), and becoming what you purport to abhor (“Infestation”).
Young’s sense of humour is sharp and often delightfully morose. A bizarre roadside accident in “The Garden of the Fugitives” involving a windsurf board, a gun, some beer bottles and a moving van is a case in point. Young’s style is concise and uncomplicated, but nothing feels incomplete, nothing feels unsaid. He can, in only a few words, evoke feelings intrinsically understood. His description of the awkwardness of a party buffet, for example: “It’s not easy to balance a beer and scoop up a spoonful of rotini at the same time.” One sentence and the reader is there, in the character’s skin, wishing to grow a third arm adapted for efficient rotini scooping.
Men the world over will continue to age and, undoubtedly, the cheap jokes will persist. But for a reminder of midlife’s true and diverse face, men of middle age and those who love them can always come back to their copy of The End of the Ice Age. As long as they can recall where they left it.
Mark Paterson’s story “Spring Training” won the 5th Annual Geist Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest. Author of the short story collections A Finely Tuned Apathy Machine and Other People’s Showers, Mark is currently writing a novel called With the Lights Out.