Chapter 47: Geezer Lit

The Return of the Older Hero, Part Deux.

Not the Same Old Guy Is Fall, a movie arrives that I’ve been looking forward to eagerly, entirely because of the book on which it is based. The book, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson was published in Sweden in 2009 and has since sold more than six million copies worldwide. The story chronicles the adventures of one Allan Karlsson, who, on the day of his 100th birthday, sneaks out of a retirement home in the town of Malmkoping, Sweden, and buys a bus ticket to the first town that the change in his pocket will take him to, accompanied by a wheeled suitcase belonging to a young man who was rude to him in the bus station. The suitcase turns out to contain 37.5 million Swedish kronor – just under $6 million Canadian – of drug money, and the adventure is on.

The Amazon entry for the book describes Allan Karlsson as “much like Forrest Gump (if Gump were an explosives expert with a fondness for vodka).” I agree, to a point. I think the book is quirky, deadpan hilarious, weirdly liberating, but also something else: revolutionary. Jonasson has succeeded in taking a time-tested archetype of the elderly hero – the elderly hero who departs on a quest – and turning it on its head.

The “Geezer-on-the-Lam” genre is a venerable one, one you’ll probably recognize: an aging protagonist suffers a crisis and sets out on a journey to escape it; on the road, he (or she) has a revelation and is dramatically transformed by realizing a truth previously hidden by a character flaw. The transformation is non-negotiable. Peace and acceptance follow – after which the old hero usually dies.

An early example of the genre might be its most famous: Shakespeare’s King Lear. Written around the year 1605, the play tells the story of Lear, an English monarch who decides to retire from the throne and divide his kingdom among his three daughters. To determine to whom he’ll give the largest portion, he asks each daughter to tell him how much they love him. His two older daughters, Goneril and Reagan, tell him they love him beyond anyone or anything; but Cordelia, his youngest and favourite, says she can’t put into words how she feels about him. “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth.” Furious, he disinherits her and cedes the realm to Goneril and Reagan, with whom he then goes to stay, one after the other, in a kind of trial run at senior relocation. When it becomes apparent that the two are inhospitable vipers, he sets off on a confused, hallucinatory trek across the moors, alone except for his fool. He only comes to his senses when he’s reunited with Cordelia, who he finally realizes is his only truly loving, honest daughter. But it’s too late: Cordelia is murdered, and Lear dies, the victim of his pride. “Geezer-on-the-Lam” tragedy-style.

At almost exactly the same time as Shakespeare was finishing King Lear in England, Miguel de Cervantes in Spain, was putting the final touches on his masterpiece, Don Quixote, a kind of King Lear as if reimagined by the film-making Coen brothers. Alonso Quixano, a retired country gentleman living in the town of La Mancha, is so obsessed with the idea of reviving Chivalry that he dubs himself Don Quixote de la Mancha and sets out on a quest for knightly glory. On the road, Quixote fights giants (actually, windmills), frees a lady being kidnapped by enchanters (actually, monks accompanying her) and makes his servant, Sancho Panza, the governor of an imaginary isle. When he finally comes to his senses, he realizes that the chivalric dream has poisoned his mind, and knighthood is no job for a sensible Spanish boy. Then he dies. “Geezer-on-the-Lam” comedy-style.

Over the centuries, the genre keeps popping up. In the 1843 Charles Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is an ancient miser with a stony heart, who has a Christmas Eve journey inflicted upon him by a trio of ghosts, Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. In a series of flyover montages, they show him what his life has been and what it will be if he doesn’t mend his ways, which, of course, he does (so he doesn’t die). A hundred years later, in Arthur Miller’s 1949 classic, Death of a Salesman, we get Willy Loman, an aging, struggling pedlar of sorts who gets fired by a man half his age and is launched on his own befuddled wanderings through his Brooklyn neighbourhood, tending the flowers, seeing people who are dead, before finally coming to realize that he’s been living in a fantasy world of his own, where sales figures are the measure of a man and that the only truly important thing is the love of the people you love! (Willy does die but by his own hand to provide his wife with insurance money.)

In 1964, possibly the greatest female “Geezer-on-the-Lam” book ever written comes out, The Stone Angel, by our own Margaret Laurence, with its 90-year-old narrator, Hagar Shipley. Hagar is so joylessly exact in her recollection of all things, including sex with her husband, that The Stone Angel, may be the least sexy book ever written, is still banned in some Canadian high schools. Hagar runs away to avoid a nursing home her son and daughter-in-law want to place her in, ending up in an abandoned cannery where, waiting for the end, she realizes that she has always wanted one simple thing – to rejoice – but never could. Later, in hospital, she does just that, sharing a moment of unguarded laughter with a fellow patient. Then, yes, she too dies.

And so, half a century after Hagar, we come to Allan Karlsson. All the mechanics are there for The Hundred-Year-Old Man to fit the usual aging protagonist mould, but Allan doesn’t! Every other geezer hero is transformed, but Allan is not; he’s the same guy at the end of the book as he is at the beginning. Every other aging hero regrets things in their life and deeply; Allan doesn’t regret a thing. He says regret can’t change the thing you feel regret about. He knows he’s made some unwise decisions in his life – like, merely, giving the secret of the atom bomb to Joseph Stalin (“That [was] a mistake because Stalin was as crazy as they come”), but he doesn’t waste time worrying about them. He lives by his mother’s dictum: “Things are what they are, and whatever will be will be.” He’s no Pollyanna – actually, he thinks that the only predictable thing in the world is “general stupidity,” and he’s never met an “–ism” (Communism, Capitalism, Socialism) that he likes – he’s seen too much trouble caused by all of them! Terrible things have happened to him: orphaned at a young age, sterilized and apparently rendered impotent by a eugenics-crazed doctor at the mental hospital where he ends up after accidentally blowing somebody up (who probably deserved it) with one of his TNT experiments. But he’s not embittered. He likes exploding things, drinking vodka and eating, probably in that order. He doesn’t die; instead, he discovers that the mental hospital doctor’s procedure didn’t wipe out his sexual function after all, which means he can marry Amanda Einstein, widow of Albert’s idiot brother, Herbert (don’t ask).

Why do I like Allan so much? Maybe it’s his reason for going on the lam from the retirement home in the first place – to avoid the 100th birthday party being thrown for him that evening. Allan avoids birthday parties, especially his own. So do I.

I think he’d agree with me that people who count get older faster and wonder why you deserve a present for turning up. Allan may not be transformed, but every person he meets in the book is transformed by him. This is a different and totally modern view of aging: call it the Zoomer Version based on the fairly recent possibility of continued effectiveness as we get older, an insistence on the right not just to react but to act!

“So you might be a little slow,” you can almost hear Allan saying. So it might take you longer to get there, you might have to rest for a week or two or take an afternoon swim. But you never know if you can make it out of the window and into a nice lady’s arms, unless you try. Let someone else figure out the meaning of life; just you keep living it.

Watching this New Kind of Older Hero do just that, you begin to suspect that aging may indeed have its advantages. Just ask the mobster who tells Allan over his cellphone that if he doesn’t hand over the boss’s money, he’s a dead man. “Well, if you want to kill me, you better hurry up,” says Allan. “I’m a hundred years old.”

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.