It is not often we encounter a protagonist who meets things head-on while his mental faculties are crumbling. But that is exactly what Elmer does in Withering by
Elmer wanted to be a writer, but gave that up to provide as best he could, ultimately leading to his accident at work and disability. He still keeps journals, and they are full of entries as beautiful as Ms. Elmore’s prose. He writes with lucidity and craft, and in few, poetic words, captures his past and present experiences. These excerpts are framed in the unfolding story, full of sensory stimuli to share his situation. We can smell the musty air of the trailer, blink at the blinding New Mexican sunlight, feel the fur of the dog as he is petted, and sense the change in the dry desert air as a storm unfolds. It is a bleak picture as we see Elmer’s life contract further and further, understanding more and more about him, but it is a beautiful and eloquent exposition of decay, sadness and bitterness.
Ultimately, he is lucid enough to take stock and see things as they are. He does this on his own terms and in his own way, with a unique kind of decisive bravery. There is a last gesture of kindness he shows a boy, displaying the vestiges of a once generous heart that has been diminished and constrained by the ruins of his life. One might be inclined to see Elmer ultimately as a failure, but in fact, he has ceded no control nor permitted himself any self-pity nor allowed himself to be stacked away with the old and infirm like cordwood. This, to me, makes him a hero, and the book worth reading.