July 2011

Colleen Mondor

fiction

Correspondence: An Adventure in Letters by N. John Hall

In the long tradition of epistolary novelists, N. John Hall has crafted Correspondence: An Adventure in Letters around an exchange between retired New York City bank clerk Larry Dickerson and Christie's Books and Manuscripts specialist Stephen Nicholls. Dickerson came into possession of a cache of letters written to his bookseller great great grandfather by some of the literary luminaries of his era: Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, Hardy, etc. While he has only the most general knowledge of the authors, the retiree is certain the letters hold some financial value, which leads both Nicholls (and the reader) to expect that he will provide them to the auction house as soon as possible to verify authenticity and then, he hopes, sell. But Larry Dickerson is not your average retired bank clerk. This is a man burning with a desire to learn all that he missed while he was living his entirely acceptable but rather dull professional life. Dickerson wants to know more about his ancestor and the people he corresponded with, and in an effort to do that he begins a long exchange of letters and e-mails with Nicholls, ultimately deciding to write a profile of his great great grandfather. In the course of this correspondence regarding the sale of the letters, the men become friends, discussing their own lives and the lives of the great writers that brought them together.

While readers of the writers involved will be intrigued by Hall's spin on their private thoughts, Correspondence serves even better as an armchair education on Victorian literature. If Dickerson was not such a friendly curmudgeon and Nicholls not so endlessly patient, the narrative would likely bog down early but their friendly duel for control of the correspondence -- Nicholls always asking when it will be mailed, Dickerson always promising "soon" -- is quite enjoyable to read and allows both characters to develop full and individual personalities la Helene Hanff and Frank Doel. Hall punches up their exchanges by slowly incorporating excerpts from the letters as Dickerson becomes more engrossed in his discovery (eventually turning to the classroom to learn more) and Nicholls, who is also interested in the Victorians, becomes increasingly more interested in what the entire package could hold. Ultimately Nicholls is promoted and must hand his favorite client off to a co-worker, and the friends struggle to find reasons to maintain their own correspondence. Things take a turn or two in regards to the sale, but through it all Dickerson cannot contain his joy over learning more or his delight in sharing his newfound knowledge. Nicholls (and later Charlie Dover) is a welcome foil in that regard and winsomely proud of each step the former clerk takes in his education.

I would not say that Correspondence is as compelling as 84, Charing Cross Road (Dickerson does not share Hanff's acerbic wit), but this kinder, gentler survey of Victorian literature has many things to recommend it. Dickerson's evolution from mildly interested to deeply committed is a joy to follow and the many lessons on the Victorians that Hall artfully embeds in the text are welcome to anyone who wants to know more without tackling a biography (or night school). In many ways, Correspondence serves as the best sort of English textbook; it contains a bit of a mystery, some warm exchanges between friends, and more than one kind word for some truly great writers. An AP English student would find much here to worth adding to his classroom education but I can't help thinking it is people who find themselves in circumstances similar to Dickerson -- finally with the time on their hands to learn all they missed -- who will most likely embrace it. These are literary lessons at their most amiable and a tonic to the chaos of the world around us.

Correspondence: An Adventure in Letters by N. John Hall
David R. Godine
ISBN: 978-1567924121
248 pages