Tom LeClair’s Passing On virtually begins in Conseco Fieldhouse, home of the NBA’s Indiana Pacers. But, believe me, it is not a sports novel. It’s entertaining, funny, serious, and death-ridden, but it’s not about basketball. Still, its protagonist—and narrator—is a former college and erstwhile professional basketball player named Michael “Key” Keever. Key played ball at the University of Cincinnati (yep, LeClair teaches there), once had a ten-day contract with the Celtics, knocked around CBA franchises such as that of the Rockford Lightning (a franchise, once, oddly enough, coached by another novelist, named Charlie Rosen), and eventually ended up playing in Athens (Greece, not Ohio) under the name “Kyvernos.” Key’s exploits, as player—he’s a slow, white point guard who will hit the open man and the open shot—and “national hero” in Greece are recounted in LeClair’s first novel about him. Called Passing Off, and “written” by Key’s wife, Ann (herself a lovely character), it is mentioned about as often in Passing On as Kobe Bryant hoists up another jump shot. “Although my name was on Passing Off, Ann was the author. She made herself a smart bitch, me a stupid low-key jock. To satisfy readers’ expectations, she said. To create domestic conflict, she said, to parallel larger conflicts. I told her the stuff about basketball and my feelings about Greece, and she invented the plot to blow up the Parthenon. Then she had me foil it, which made me a national hero. Ann knew what readers wanted. Translated into Greek, my first-person ‘autobiography’ became a bestseller, and she earned back some of the money I lost when exposed as a fake Greek” (37).
In Passing On, Key, as it were, writes his own book. Indeed, LeClair gives us two title pages, the second, attributed to Keever, has as subtitle “My Life with the Dying.” Early, Conseco Fieldhouse, home of the NBA Indiana Pacers, enters into the novel when in his van Key takes a friend, Marv “Drink” Drinkman, also his agent, on a ride from Cincinnati to Indianapolis and the fieldhouse. Alas, Drink is dying rapidly of cancer and living out his days in a hospice. “I owed a lot to Drink,” Key recounts. “Not just jumping me overseas when I was done with the CBA but also the settlement I got from a TV network, which I’ve agreed not to name.” With Drink’s help, Key gets the settlement because, his playing days over, he’d gotten into refereeing. “I was running backward down the sideline, using my point-guard anticipation to get out ahead of the fast break, when I tripped over the TV sound man who had stuck his mike out too far toward the floor.” Now he has a hip replacement, but with the settlement money started up “Key Security, which consisted of a surveillance van with great video capabilities” (10). It is in this van that Key gives Drink a ride over to Conseco, and it is during this trip that Drink suggests that Key ought to get into another line of work “Terminal Tours, Key. Start a business. Take people like me on their last trips, wherever they want to go, wherever they think they want to go”(14). Urging Key to get out of the surveillance game, Drink promises he will find him some clients at the hospice. With the first of these, Key embarks on the real story that occupies Passing On.
LeClair does what some of the better contemporary novelists do—he conjoins multiple genres in interesting ways. Here, he creates a weird sort of picaresque or travel tale or, better, tale of pilgrims and pilgrimage. This genre ranges from Exodus to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Hawthorne’s “The Canterbury Pilgrims,” from The Sun Also Rises to The Grapes of Wrath. With modern travel such as it is, LeClair gives the genre a twist. Key lives in Cincinnati but with the clients of “Terminal Tours” he can journey hither and yon and at the same time encounter many types of people whose stories produce Key’s narrative and reflect his own. Though we get travelogue accounts of places, travel as such seems not the object, and while Key exhibits a few features of the picaro (he is stubborn and willing to take risks), he is certainly not the rogue of picaresque. He is, rather, as much a pilgrim—a person looking toward earthly or eschatological things—as any of his clients, who, at Ann’s urging, he indeed calls pilgrims. What are they looking for? Arranged for by Drink, his first pilgrim, Agnes, eighty-five and weighing about eighty-five pounds, simply wants to revisit the home in Wooster, Ohio, where she grew up. Facing death, she seeks not an afterlife, on “the other side” (15), but her start in life on Oak Street, with her two older brothers and parents, “the smells of her mother cooking porridge, the clickety-clack sound Milton made going down the cellar stairs to feed the dog, the feel of George’s greasy hair when he went out ‘sparking’” (15). A bit roguishly, in a postmodernist way, but in an act that seems infinitely kind, Key passes off a copy, as it were, of 23 Oak when there is no real one to be found. Then, in a ploy equally postmodernist, he validates it as reality in a videotape. Sweet Agnes could not have been more thrilled. “‘I can’t wait to see the movie,’ she said over and over again on the ride back to Cincinnati” (17).
From this touchingly comic beginning, “Terminal Tours” takes Key and his charges on increasingly significant pilgrimages. After Agnes, there are relatively trivial jaunts to Graceland and Vegas, Paris, and Rome, and at least one to a riverboat casino. Jerome, fifty-five and looking seventy-five, simply wants to take a crack at gambling. Dying of prostate cancer, Jerome has a wife who eschews the vice, but wants “one of them big double-door refrigerators” (18). Using his “system” (and, perhaps, the luck of the terminally ill), Jerome has a great time at roulette and even wins enough to cover Key’s expenses and his wife’s new Frigidaire. Soon, though, the pilgrimages carry a much heavier emotional burden. Perhaps the first to hit Key really hard is that of Markita Moore, one of the pilgrims he calls death-defiers. In a sad irony, Markita, Ann’s running buddy, “did marathons to fight leukemia and then was diagnosed with it” (34). She had run marathons in Boston, Chicago, New York, and elsewhere, “but five minutes after she got her diagnosis she decided to run the original route, Marathon to Athens.” That route, these days, is choked by traffic and air pollution, and there is no race as such. What Key wonders about this beautiful black woman’s intentions is whether she runs this original route to “beat death or if running might rehearse or even hasten her death. Perhaps the run was a long slow suicide, Markita dying at her own speed” (41). Trying to explain herself on their flight back to the States, Markita tells Key it was to fight fear. After her diagnosis, she says, the “only thing that gave me any hope, any faith I’d be able to move at all, was the word ‘marathon.’ I’ve been saying it to myself just about every waking moment since then. Marathon, marathon, marathon. Now I’ve done it, and I’m still saying it to myself. I did it. Marathon, marathon. The word has stronger meaning now. It’s all I have to fight my fear” (45).
Markita prompts Key seriously to question his motives and methods. Comically, he makes some mistakes, gets blamed for taking on clients he should not have, and in one blackly humorous even has a patient die on him. At Lourdes. In one of the heaviest episodes in the novel, Key unwittingly participates in the suicide of one pilgrim. Ironically, this one seems for Key likely to be one of his most pleasant jobs. A friend of his daughter, Sara (a neatly characterized fifteen-year old who has a wonderful blunt relation to her father), this client is a boy named Rudy Knight who shares a name with Rudy “Red” Knight, an NBA star with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Sara’s Rudy, however, is wheelchair-bound because a couple years back his legs had been crushed by a drunk driver. Having begun to suffer depression, perhaps because he’s entering puberty and fears a grim adulthood, young Rudy apparently wants simply to visit an NBA star. More than that, however, he wants to ask Key what he has learned about death and the afterlife from others. Rudy confesses that “recently I’ve begun to feel close to death. You know, terminal” (78). But what can Key tell him? Even if he’s not entirely content with the sheer atheism of some of his clients, one of whom especially anticipates nothing more than enriching “the soil with his nutrients” (79), Key no longer believes in the religion of his father, a Catholic, but has nothing to offer in its place. “So,” he admits, “I lied to him” (79). He offers something he hopes will help Rudy face his life more cheerfully, something “like Hinduism,” life as a “trip.” “I believe,” he says, “we keep touring” (80). A few weeks later, though, he learns from Ann and Sara that Rudy has killed himself. “He dumped himself out of his wheelchair and swallowed lye from under the sink” (80). Often blackly humorous but never ghoulish, Passing On is death-haunted in ways far beyond the fact that its narrator conducts the dying on their terminal tours. But, for reader and narrator alike, Rudy’s death marks a wrenching moment in the narrative. Beyond his wife’s and daughter’s anguish, Key’s own feelings about Rudy begin to make him regret ever having begun Terminal Tours. Moreover, as Markita had as well, Rudy makes him ponder more fully the aims of his pilgrims and their pilgrimages. Is the issue merely ethical or is it truly eschatological? On the side of ethics, Ann and Sara partly blame him for Rudy’s suicide, both for the content of the lie, which may (no one really knows the truth since Rudy left no note) have given Rudy hope of a way out of his handicapped existence, and for having lied at all. If you’re going to claim you know something, Ann argues, then surely it’s unethical to begin with what you know from the outset is “a made-up belief” (81). On the eschatological side, those last things featured by Terminal Tours make Key aware of life and death, heaven and hell, the afterlife. The pilgrims, one by one, in various ways, some comically, some tragically, make Key address how those issues affect his own life. While mostly Key tries to avoid those big issues, the tours inevitably hit him, as in Rudy’s suicide, in the face with them. Suicide itself has been big in his life. Like Rudy, Key’s mother, by a different method, had offed herself. “Only my mother, of people I knew, died when she was ready. Drove into town on January 25th, filled up her Dodge with gas, drove up into our wood lot, connected the garden hose to the tailpipe, and faded away listening to a Frank Sinatra tape” (30). While Key’s father had also died prematurely, death at least came in an accident, his car going off the highway, breaking “through the ice, and [ending] up in Black River. All those 2:00 a.m. safe returns after Boston [Celtics] night games and Dad drowns in the afternoon five miles from home” (28).
So what is Key himself searching for? Pretty much the same thing as some of the pilgrims he accompanies—faith or hope or an answer to the big eschatological question of last things. As his brother, a cop in Vermont who’d probably rather be a priest, warns him about his pilgrims, “You’re just offering them entertainment.” Instead, he says, “In their time left, they should be meditating on the last things, keeping close contact with their priests and ministers and rabbis” (29). Of course, despite Key’s sense of error in his encouragement to Rudy Knight, these eschatological issues don’t really involve an ethics of truth or lie, but faith, and Key is pretty certain that his “father’s faith” (128) will not return. So what does he have to face up to? One thing is his motive for doing the tours in the first place. A point guard as a ballplayer, “an expert avoider” (106), Key thinks often of holes and gaps, of finding the gaps in a defensive wall, of hitting the hole with a neat pass. Indeed, these metaphors—walls, holes, gaps—recur often, in the vocabularies of both Key and his clients, as enfigurations of the divide between life and death and the passages through to another world, a life beyond, an afterlife. For Key, the crisis he must face, at a point where he feels he must shut down Terminal Tours, regards his own sense of final things. “I’d been keeping a secret from myself for months: Terminal Tours was a mistake. Maybe even a sin. I’d been feasting on others’ deaths, hoping (without actually knowing it) that I’d pick up with my peripheral vision some flicker of immortality, wishing (without fully realizing it) that watching others die would relieve my fears, the very fears they injected into me” (106). It is this moment of self awareness that launches Key into the novel’s climactic—terminal—tour.
Eventually, Key realizes that while it has been the pilgrims who have led his tours, it is he who must become a real tour guide, set an itinerary for himself, if not his pilgrims. For himself, at least, he must seek the real answer that Rudy Knight assumed he had all along. This shift in his perspective comes with his final client. Alice had been Key’s physical therapist when he was recovering from his hip replacement. Then, she was strong, witty, attractive, resistant to his charms, full of vitality, until she’s given three months to live with kidney cancer. Despite his mantra, “No more tours,” Key decides he will help his friend. Hers is “The No Hope Tour.” On her American Express card (“Never leave this life without it” ), she wants “to visit famous graveyards and tombs. Cities of the dead” (111). Starting out, it is she who is the tour guide—directing them to visit such places as Egypt and the tombs of the pharaohs, Halicarnassus (now Bodrum), where stood the “original” mausoleum, a monument to King Mausolus—until she runs out of ideas. Then, Key takes over. He leads her to the greatest of Muslim mausoleums, the Taj Mahal, built around the idea of an afterlife. Already committed to a no hope tour, Alice wants also to view the Taj from “the other side,” the side of the Hindus. Together, Key realizes, the two “sides” represent the extremes of human faith regarding last things. “Over here,” on the Hindu side, “they know the body is gone. They’ve burned it, sent it down the river. Over there,” on the Muslim, “they’re pretending the body still exists, just pressed down by all that weight like a beautiful flower in a dictionary” (143). What’s more, in his words “know” versus “pretending,” he unconsciously acknowledges his own final answer.
Thereafter, in the novel’s concluding episode, Key takes Alice to the ultimate no-hope site, an enormous, teeming ship’s graveyard at Alang, India. A “graveyard without markers” (152), Alang, Key thinks, “is far worse than I thought it would be, the worst place I’ve ever been, maybe one of the worst places on earth” (156). There, in a scene right out of Hieronymus Bosch, the “ships are like human corpses placed on platforms for vultures to devour” (153). Yet in the men who strip them, Key also somehow sees images of himself, the aging athlete, all of them epigones of Housman’s athlete dying young. “Not figuratively, like me in the van, but literally perishing before our eyes like some ancient sacrificial circus” (156). For Key, this Boschean hell on earth nonetheless produces a positive spin on the previous Hindu answer. It offers a view of life and death as recycling, one as naturalistic and antitranscendental as imaginable. What the dying ships at Alang come to represent is a miraculous “reincarnation” of “metal to metal,” one whose lesson is, simply, “dust to dust for my flesh, ashes to ashes [. . .] for my bones.” This, he understands, is not “quite Catholic immortality or Hindu transmigration but the best this dying athlete can imagine in a graveyard hell where words disappear, where plots are unnamed, where the names of ships dissolve into scrap” (157). Its lesson is beyond words, writing, story telling. Fade to black. Or silence. No more narration. But their tour continues. Really, Key’s is neither an ethical nor an eschatological conclusion. It is, I think, an aesthetic one, but aesthetically it feels right in a novel that takes on issues—with humor and irony I’ve hardly suggested—not many a serious novelist tackles these days. It’s a winner, worth a shot.