To simply call The Grievers by Marc Schuster a comic novel is to dismiss the book’s emotional depth. At its core, the story is a touching—and somewhat dark—meditation on friendship, death, and missed opportunities. Charley Schwartz is a mess. The promise of his younger years has fizzled out, leaving him with an incomplete dissertation moldering in his desk drawer and a humiliating job prancing around in a large dollar sign costume (complete with green tights and large Mickey Mouse-type gloves) outside the local bank. His off-kilter existence is thrown more askew when he learns an old childhood friend, Billy Chin, has leapt to his death off Philadelphia’s Henry Avenue Bridge.
For Charley, Billy’s suicide is a brutal wake-up call, forcing him to take stock of who he is and what his life has become. Why has he failed to live up to his potential? Was he really as good a friend to Billy as he should have been? And is it ever too late to steer your life back on its intended course? In Billy’s death, Charley sees an opportunity to not only prove his worth as a human being by organizing a memorial service for his friend, but also a way to acknowledge what he has long tried to ignore: He’s an adult.
In an interview with Life Magazine shortly before his death, Ian Fleming said he had gone through life with one foot “never wanting to leave the cradle.” It made, he said, “a rather painful split of one’s life.” Charley has spent his adult life clinging desperately to the carefree attitudes of childhood. His failure to take anything seriously is a constant annoyance to his best friend, Neil, a Marx Brothers fanatic who wants Charley to join him in the grown-up world of responsibilities. The yearning to turn back the clock is a theme that runs through The Grievers and is something almost everyone can relate to. In Charley’s case, it’s a defense mechanism to ward off the sense of failure that attaches itself to nearly everything he does. Fortunately, he has a pretty amazing wife who still believes in his inner potential.
Needless to say, Charley’s attempt to organize Billy’s memorial service turns into a fiasco when his alma mater—a slowly decaying boy’s academy—seizes the event as a fund-raising opportunity. For Charley, it’s an opportunity to abandon his sense of worthlessness and finally do something right.
In writing The Grievers, Schuster has done everything right, giving us a story that–at its conclusion–delivers a hefty, emotional punch.