Clifford’s Spiral by Gerald Everett Jones

Clifford Klovis has a stroke at the very beginning of Clifford’s Spiral, and you can sense right away that you are in for one of the most original, satisfying literary works of the year.

Standing over his bed is a doctor with big knuckles and the obligatory stethoscope. “If you can understand me,” the doctor says, “blink twice.”

Clifford just stares at him, fully understanding him, but seeing no reason to speak.

The doctor plunges gamely on with a detailed explanation of Clifford’s condition and prognosis while Clifford continues to be unresponsive.

Finally, the physician leaves and a woman appears at his bedside, offering pained condolences for hosting the party at which Clifford’s stroke occurred, as though there were a correlation between the two.

Caught unawares, he almost speaks to her, forgetting his newfound position of relational power. Then he regains control and simply offers her a blank stare.

So begins this excellent narrative about  one man’s quietly rebellious response to a catastrophic diagnosis. His free-thinking notion that just because you CAN communicate in the event of a stroke or other disabling event, doesn’t necessarily mean you SHOULD.

With this curious premise firmly in place, then, the delicious literary construct that is Cllfford’s Spiral begins to unwind.

The novel is replete with wry, ironic cosmic questions and a series of brilliantly written better-than-Woody Allen-like vignettes, reminiscences and reflections about former jobs, former wives and former lives. All delivered in impeccable flashback format, complete with running internal commentary.

All this, by the way, going on as doctors try to determine (without much help from their patient) the extent to which the stroke’s effects have damaged Clifford.

Outwardly, he remains as stoic as a department store dummy. He is, however, relatively functional, dressing and feeding himself with the help of a pivotal character — a caregiver named Myra — but otherwise providing no clue as to what might be happening inside his head.

The answer to that question is: a lot.

For example, at one point, Clifford mentally (but very vividly) revisits his problematic and deeply flawed relationship with Ruth, a seemingly malleable young lady willing to go along with Clifford’s predominantly misogynistic treatment of the opposite sex.

But that relationship goes south when Clifford discovers Ruth has vanished, married suddenly to an old high school beau.

Similarly, Tessa and Eleanor move into and out of Clifford’s life, leaving behind emotional wreckage on both sides — and, in Eleanor’s case — a child by their failed marriage. Jeremy is now quadriplegic, the victim of an unfortunate car accident in his teens.

But things really begin to come to a head when Myra, his primary caregiver at the institution to which he’s been consigned, figures out (more or less) that Clifford is living a double life and calls him on it. She predicts that if he keeps up his charade much longer, the doctors there will pump him full of drugs like thorazine and haldol — two powerful sedatives.

“She tapped the side of his head gently with her finger. ‘So if there’s anything going on in there — and I’m guessing there is — after they do that, there won’t be. You’ll be a space cadet, sleeping while you’re wide awake, for however many days you’ve got left. I don’t want that to happen to you, Mr. Klovis.”

Other characters past and present-day also loom large in this complex and beautifully layered novel.

Natalie, with whom he corresponded when he spent time in France many years ago, returns to haunt him via letters discovered by Jeremy in cleaning out Clifford’s old digs.

And other players — long-dead and long-forgotten — also swim in and out of focus as Clifford continues down the long slippery slope toward a reluctant self-realization.

Some are famous — like the esteemed physicist Stephen Hawking whose phantasmic conversation with Clifford is remarkable on many counts — and some are not. Like the Rev. Immanuel Thurston, the tall, ebony-skinned chieftain who had pastored the church his parents attended.

We’ve seen and noted the comparison of this author by other reviewers to literary giants like Roth and Vonnegut. And we can’t disagree. Yet we feel there may be yet another strata for Gerald Everett Jones, who arguably is doing the best work of his career. We predict that he lacks only a mention in the The New York Review of Books or, better yet, Oprah, to become a nationwide best-selling author.

Five-plus stars to Clifford’s Spiral, a true literary novel if ever there was one. We say in all seriousness that if you only read one novel this year, this should be it.

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