When Lori Ostund’s After the Parade opens, Aaron is getting ready to leave a relationship of more than twenty years, and move from Albuquerque to San Francisco. Everything he owns is in a U-Haul truck in the driveway. On the fourth page, we have this passage:
“… he returned from his walk and circled the truck, double-checking the padlock because he knew there would come a moment during the night when he would lie awake thinking about it, and this way he would have an image that he could pull up in his mind: the padlock, secured.”
Aaron, is male, gay, twenty years younger than me and was raised in the Midwest, but by Page Four I understand him. I know that he is a person who developed stratagems to combat a general sense of anxiety. I feel close to him. I continue to feel close to him, to understand him, as the book shares both his first few months on his own in San Francisco, and his troubled childhood.
I feel close to Aaron because Ostlund does three things as a writer that reveal and embrace him. The first thing she does is pay attention to people. She is observant and she remembers what she observes, as when Aaron consciously takes a moment to see the locked padlock so that he can retrieve a visual memory. Ostlund remembers what she sees and what it reveals about people. And she uses that.
Secondly, she writes beautiful sentences. As whole as her characters are, some insights about them could seem clunky in the hands of a less talented or less hardworking writer. Ostlund’s sentences are beautiful themselves and they flow seamlessly into each other as the story opens up. Some books are like onions, layers revealed by the reader’s metaphorical paring knife or fingernails. After the Parade is a flower bud in the spring sunlight, unfurling gracefully on its own to reveal its layers, guided by the meter and even musicality of the prose.
Acute human observation and good prose skills are in the toolkits of many, if not most, good writers. The third thing Ostlund brings is an approach rooted in compassion. I’ve read plenty of books with interesting, quirky or strange characters, where too often the story, intentionally or not, cultivated a certain between the reader and the characters. We were invited to take a clinical approach, or even mock the characters’ fearfulness, their obsessions, their fantasies.
Ostlund’s story embraces its characters, even the ones who do silly things, or crazy things, or terrible things. Without lecturing, she lets us fully see them. We may not approve of what they do, but we begin to understand, and we see that they are still humans. They are people.
Ostlund also has a dry Midwestern wit that seasons the pages of After the Parade. Aaron’s life changed completely after the annual small-town summer parade when he was six. His father, who was in law enforcement, fell off the back of a parade float, hit his head and died. Did you laugh just then? I would have. I would have given a horrified snort of laughter and then been appalled at myself. It is terrible and tragic that Aaron’s father died that way. It is also funny. As the story progresses we see that the death of Aaron’s father is many other things as well. Ostlund knows that something can be terrible and funny at the same time, and she is expert at delivering that, whether it’s a fatal fall off a parade float or Aaron’s walk down the hallway to the bathroom after his uncle has just used it.
The book covers four months in San Francisco in the “present tense” of the story, and Aaron’s childhood from the time he was five. Aaron is an only child, methodical, precise, vaguely worried all the time for reasons that become clear as we see him with his father and mother. Aaron’s sense of his place in his own childhood is described in his memory of an annual vacation to a park that had a statue of Paul Bunyan and the blue ox Babe.
“In the family photo album there were three different shots of him standing between Paul
and Babe, one to commemorate each visit, the changes in those young versions of himself obvious, despite the fact that whoever took the pictures (he assumed it was his father) had stood far back in order to capture the full height of Paul Bunyan, leaving Aaron an incidental presence at the statue’s feet.”
Aaron believed he was “rescued” from his life in a small Minnesota town by the love of Walter, his partner for more than twenty years. During that time Aaron comes to believe that gratitude is not the basis of a relationship, and this is why he strikes out on his own. We see him teaching English as a Second Language students in a rundown school in San Francisco, and we admire his dedication and commitment to his students. We also watch the changes in his life after his father’s death, including a short but terrifying stay with his paternal uncle when his mother, Dolores, has a breakdown. Later Dolores moves them to a nearby town where she ends up buying the local diner. When Aaron is in high school, she suddenly leaves town without telling him, an element that is developed in the second half of the book.
Throughout his early years, Aaron meets a number of strange people, some, like the dwarf Clarence, physically odd (Clarence has tusks) and some who are emotionally or mentally odd, but the story takes people as they come, the same way Aaron does. In the present, Aaron continues to meet odd ducks, like the retired private investigator who rents space at the school for a “P.I. School.” He is a definite type, but also a genuine person. The issues Aaron’s students face may be funny but they are real.
The book’s pacing is just right, and flows so smoothly that it was quite a while before I began to realize (about the time Aaron did, I think) that Aaron’s way of leaving Walter has echoes of the way his mother left him. The little tics and quirks that Aaron displayed early in the book take on larger significance when we realize this is a person who had never, before he met Walter, felt safe.
Because this is a book that reminded me how important it is to look at people with compassion, I’d love to award myself some virtue points and say, “Oh, I read this because I know how important it is to look at people without judgment, to try to start where they are.” That may be one of the things I took away from After the Parade, but this isn’t why I read it. I read it because I loved it from the fourth page. This is a book I will keep and read again, and it’s a book I will recommend to many of my friends. Now more than ever we do need to remember compassion and honestly. In After the Parade, Ostlund balances both.