George Washington Crosby is dying from kidney failure. The eighty-year-old man has a crumbling body - Parkinson's disease, cancer, diabetes, and previous heart attacks - and a murky mind. He is hallucinating and his memories are disordered. George occupies a hospital bed in the living room of a house that he constructed himself. His family keeps him company as they await his imminent demise.

Some of George's thoughts revolve around his passion for clocks and his skill in repairing them. Most of his memories center on his father, Howard Aaron Crosby. About seventy years earlier, Howard owned a wooden wagon and a horse and scratched out a living as a tinker and a peddler of household goods. Howard's father had been a Methodist minister who exhibited worsening signs of mental illness. The man was eventually escorted out of his home. Only a young boy at the time, Howard would never see his father again.

Howard suffered from frequent and violent epileptic seizures. His wife and the family doctor thought Howard should be admitted to the Eastern Maine State Hospital, an institution housing feebleminded and insane individuals. Howard had a different opinion. One evening, he left his wife and four children and headed to Philadelphia. He took a new name and a new wife. He found work in a grocery store. The frequency of his seizures decreased dramatically.

George's final memory before death is a vivid one. He recalls a Christmas dinner in 1953. Someone is at the door. It is a surprise (and brief) visit by Howard to George's house. It is the first time that he has seen his father since George was twelve.


The novel effectively handles two important medical issues. One is the care of a dying individual in their own home. The other is how a chronic illness (in this case, epilepsy) disrupts ordinary life and impacts the lives of family members. The story presents some exquisite impressions of seizures along with the aura that precedes them. These descriptions suggest a spiritual phenomenon approaching ecstasy. Howard compares his seizures to electricity and lightning. He asks, "What is it like to be split open from the inside by lightning?" [p45]. He provides one answer: "The actual seizure was when the bolt touched flesh, and in an instant so atomic, so nearly immaterial, nearly incorporeal, that there was almost no before and after . . . and Howard became pure, unconscious energy" [p47].

The novel masterfully represents how we measure life. We mark the passage of moments and days not merely with clocks and calendars, but by the accumulation of memories, the sum of our work, accomplishment, failure, love, and the maturation of our children.


This novel won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.

Primary Source



Bellevue Literary Press

Place Published

New York



Page Count