‘The Irrepairable Past’ by Mark Paxson: A book review

The Irreparable Past

            I stopped reading.

            Years ago, I collected and read books like they were a drug. I didn’t drink or party. I read. In my basement, I have boxes of books, a few thousand. Fantasy, science fiction, older novels, contemporary literary fiction. So many. But I stopped reading after a while, and I know why. I wanted to create, not simply be part of someone’s creation. Wanted to make people feel the way writers had made me feel. And I wanted to be the storyteller, not just the recipient of the story. 

            It’s always nagged at me, that cessation of reading. I knew it was wrong. Bad. Soul-depriving. But I just kept writing. Short stories at first, and then into novels. Stories so brimming with necessity that I had to get them out, and that took all my time. I have a full-time very demanding job. Many kids. A social life. A tiny amount of time for anything else, so I use that time for writing, and I love every second of it (ninety percent of my stories work for me, the other ten percent I consign to a deep dungeon underneath the boxes of books in the basement, a sub-basement if you will, right on the edge of hell).

            When I was a kid, I used a particular bookmark. I won’t describe it, but it’s a battered old thing that I taped up to preserve it. Almost every book I’ve ever read, I’ve used this thing. For a while, when I stopped reading, I forgot where I put it, but found it about two months ago in my collected works of Shakespeare. I wanted to read Shakespeare to my kids, to see what they would think. When I found that bookmark, I was incredibly glad to have found it. And incredibly sad that I had neglected what it stood for. The places it had been. The stories it had seen.

The Irrepairable Past

            The first book I’ve read in ages is ‘The Irrepairable Past’ by Mark Paxson. I tell you the above so that you can understand the context of me getting back to what I love, and how it relates to this particular novel. It started slow for me, this novella about a man (Henry Thornton) who spends his time alone (except for a particular egret), thinking yes, this book is going to hurt. It’s going to make me sad, and I don’t want sadness in my life. I started the book and then stopped, feeling shadows nipping at my heels, like this book was reminding me of my literary neglect. I felt it had it in for me.

            One Sunday morning not long ago, my wife woke up and started reading. So I picked up ‘The Irrepairable Past’ and started again. The story become one of Henry and the relationship with his father, a very private and difficult artist of eventual renown around Sullivan Bay. Again, I felt a shadow descending, and I just wanted that gone. I could feel the pain of Henry and the disconnect with his father – never more painful than when Henry abandoned baseball (a sport I personally love) and that his father excelled at as a young man. Could feel the split developing, and wondered what kind of life we live in where we separate ourselves from the people with whom we should be closest. I wondered, in those pages, what things I had abandoned just to spite my own parents. 

            When Maddy arrives in this story, it shines. I didn’t expect that, a relationship with a girl that I hope actually exists in this world – pure, bright, magical. But this book is called ‘The Irrepairable Past’, and that taints your understanding of what’s going to happen – you know it’s not going to be good. You know that Henry, sitting on his porch in his rocking chair, aging and alone, turned inevitably into his own father (albeit as a writer, rather than a painter) is going to blow it, and all he’ll have are memories of the damage. So Maddy is going to fade away, surely she is, and so she does just that as Henry enlists and goes off to war, partially in order to spite his father yet again. Maddy can’t handle that, and so they separate. 

            Come on, Henry Thornton. How could you make such a mistake?

            Cue the inevitable pain of the war, an injury, and Henry falling in love with his nurse, Ginny. The usual pathway unfolds – marriage, kids. But it doesn’t work. We’ve heard that story before, right? And we in part knew it was coming. It had to fail. It was inevitable. Henry had to be on that rocking chair, feeling blank, only Bob the egret for a friend, other than a couple of nosy neighbors he could really do without. The marriage had to fail, and it did, and the distance between Henry and his kids is palpable. History repeats. We repeat. We make our shadows, and descend into them, as we sometimes turn our backs on what is brightest in our lives. 

            It’s amazing what a simple bookmark can remind you of. What brightness it saw. I read ‘The Irrepairable Past’ using that bookmark.

            Stories of Henry Thornton’s life unfold, the path he travels, and how inevitably he goes back to see a father whose health is declining. There’s a reunion there, if not a redemption. There’s a connection there, if still not an understanding. That made me feel like it’s not too late, for anything. I can read again, why not? I can be an author that’s read by people, why not? A son and his father can reconcile, can’t they? Can’t they?

            The son becomes the father. I wonder if that’s happened to me, or is it to come? The worlds I’ve travelled are many, all those words, and since then, I’ve made my own worlds, perhaps fated to come back to where I started. That’s okay. Meloncholy. That’s what I felt when I read this book. I felt the characters, their pain, their distance, the thought that their lives have not been spent as they should be – that they haven’t had the contact that they wanted. The humanity that they craved and eschewed, the relic of decisions and conflicts that stretch through wars and memories and the loss of loved ones that aren’t coming back. It’s melancholy, and for me, it felt deserved. I deserved this, my first experience jumping back into the world of reading. I needed and deserved to come out of this feeling the lack that is present in Henry Thornton’s life.

You Only Think You Know

            And then a surprise. I suppose I was so attuned to that melancholy that I wasn’t expecting something… else. I don’t want to say what that something else is, but it caught me. Put its arms around me. Slapped me around a bit, like I was a fool for thinking I’ve gone too far, that you can’t go back to what you were. That the past is irreparable (or, more appropriately, as this book says, irrepairable), and that you’re stuck on this pathway with your decrepit shoes and your empty water bottle, as the sun scorches the soul out of you. I wasn’t expecting this ending. I didn’t think I deserved a story like that. But am I ever fucking glad that I got it. 

            When ‘The Irrepairable Past’ ended, I had only one thought. This shouldn’t be a novella. It should be a novel. This should be a longer story, more melancholy and pain to wrap itself around the trunk of the tree that blooms at the end no matter how hard you constrict it of life. I just wanted a longer story, and that’s my primary issue with this book – it needs more words, more life, more to the journey. It’s a sparing story. No words wasted. The story moves at a great pace, but there’s not enough of it. This was meant to be a novel with many more pages than the 123 it gave me. But that’s a quibble. That’s just a whinge. I can plug in those gaps with my imagination, right? That’s what it is to read. That’s what it was for me, when I was a kid.

            I’m going to start reading again. It’s not a big deal, I know. But it’s a big deal. I’m glad this book is my first foray back into reading. It shows me what’s possible in the stories of others. What accomplished writers can still make me feel, sad and uncomfortable at times, and then lifted out of that with a type of glory that I strive for. I want to write and make people feel the way this book has made me feel. That’s how I got into this in the first place, and I don’t ever want to forget that again. So I won’t. 

            Mark Paxson, thank you for ‘The Irrepairable Past’. I’ve always known you to be a truly excellent human being. That shows so clearly. And I know that you’re a good writer, I’ve seen that. What I perhaps didn’t know, or didn’t fully come to appreciate, is that you could move me like this. And bring me back to books, for good. Forever. All I can do is thank you for this book.

Dream hard, rage hard.

21 thoughts on “‘The Irrepairable Past’ by Mark Paxson: A book review

    1. You know what, Michelle, I think we can forgive him that character flaw. It’s a big one. I mean, how can you not like Abba? It’s like saying you don’t like toes. Or oxygen. But everyone’s got one problem, and this is the albatross (or egret?) around Mark’s neck, we’ll simply have to help him through is Abba ignorance until he becomes a disciple like the rest of the world.

  1. Trent,

    Thank you for such an incredible review. You have written a review that far surpasses the book reviewed, as far as I’m concerned. And you absolutely got so much of what I was trying to do with this thing. Your summary of Henry’s return to his father, for example — “There’s a reunion there, if not a redemption. There’s a connection there, if still not an understanding.” — describes perfectly what I wanted that section to be. Not 100% repair of the damage of decades, but something in between.

    It’s always interesting seeing how people react differently to the same story. My brother, while he likes my writing, did not like how melancholy this story was. He said that there was no light in it (for most of the story anyway) and that he needed some sprinkled throughout the story. But that’s not the story I set out to write. Sometimes you have to wallow in it, you know? Meanwhile, some day I’ll tell you how I originally thought of ending the story — it would have been a whole bunch more melancholy.

    Did you read the short story that comes after the novella? It’s called Chicago. If you didn’t, turn a couple more pages in the book and you’ll find it. That story my brother liked. 😉

    Thanks again for this review. It has absolutely made my day, week and month.

    Oh, one other thing — if you want some recommendations for other stories that will make you feel, I’ve got three. Everything Matters, The Art of Racing in the Rain, and The Book Thief. I’ve got a fourth, but it is so dark and horrible, I don’t know if I want to give it to you.

    1. It was my pleasure, this definitely woke me up and made me excited about reading again – even if there was wallowing in the melancholy, it was an exceptionally real bath. And the ending blew me away.

      I didn’t read Chicago! But I’m going to shortly. Thanks for the other recommendations too.

  2. One other thing … the length of the story. One of the ways in which I’m trying to address my writer’s block is to avoid longer pieces. I’ve kind of become the master of the novella lately. But, the other thing is that this was the story I had to tell and I would worry about a longer story filled with this much melancholy being too much for readers. It’s hard sometimes to wade through so much depression and sadness. Sometimes shorter is better.

  3. Excellent review, Trent! I was lucky enough to beta read this wonderful story.
    And all writers must read so I’m glad you have gone back to it. (I’m trying to but have to cut back on blogging challenges as they suck up way too much time

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