Review by George Yatchisin
I like to think of Carl Klaus as a journal-ist. No, he didn’t write for newspapers, but his series of nonfiction books all were certainly journals, rich accountings of his life. His prose was lean and unfussy, but the more you thought about it, the more elegantly crafted it became. So, his writing was a lot like the man himself. That’s why it’s a gift that his final book The Ninth Decade chronicled his life in his 80s, a keen-eyed, non-sentimental examination of old age that he published a few months before his passing in February 2022.
Klaus is probably best known for founding the Nonfiction Writing Program (NWP) at the University of Iowa in 1976, staking a claim for the essay at a school where the famous Writers Workshop was about the much more exalted genres of poetry and fiction. Developing that program might not seem a huge deal today, what with the last few decades’ glut of memoirs, and even then, just following the 1960s burst of creativity of New Journalism featuring now canonical figures like Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Michael Herr, and Hunter S. Thompson, but the essay seemed ancillary to proper writing. It was believed that people should just go to journalism school if they wanted to pen stuff like that.
And before I get further into my review, I must admit I had the honor of studying with Klaus, and therefore falling in love with the essay, relatively early in the NWP’s history (you got a MA/W back then, or a Master of Arts of Writing, and not an MFA; you were less expected to become famous). That he helped me become a better writer and thinker, despite my style being much more rococo than his (check the sentence above with the semi-colon in the parenthetical) proves his innate talent for teaching. He helped you become the best you could be and not mold you into a mini-Klaus.
Klaus’s literary nonfiction evinces an easy way with metaphor in the sense that the unlike contents of our life so often rhyme. It doesn’t hurt one of his chosen subjects was one of his favorite, well, hobbies seems a dismissive term for the gardening he accomplished in the ample yard of a house he lived in for the last 40 years of his life in Iowa City. While two of his previous books—1996’s My Vegetable Love: A Journal of a Growing Season and 1997’s Weathering Winter: A Gardener’s Daybook—focused primarily on seasonal patterns from seed starts in a basement to full flowering late-summer cornucopias, The Ninth Decade chronicles how he eventually at the end of his 80s has to give up gardening altogether.
He describes himself as a “self-indulgent gastronome,” and the book often grows most lyrical in descriptions of the meals he prepares from his yard’s produce. Although certainly not everything goes well through his last decade—he is quite candid about cancer and cardiac scares—the prevailing mood is one of delight. Even if his late-life partner Jackie puts that joy into poignant perspective, when he quotes her saying, “Given how happy we often claim to be, I wonder why we aren’t any happier than we seem to be.”
That said, the book works in plenty of context and actuarial facts, including pointing out that 80-year-olds are the fastest growing demographic in the U.S. and that practically no one has written about what living during that decade means. Klaus tips his hat to fellow old folks like Oliver Sacks and Roger Angell and their work, but he’s mostly diving in solo to take a good look at what’s called aging in place. Despite the impracticality of his beloved, old four-story home, he can’t really consider leaving it and all its totemic memories, including from a long, happy second marriage to Kate, who died suddenly in 2002. (Of course, he wrote about that horrible time, too, in Letters to Kate: Life After Life, a journal of grief, growth, and how fate humbles us all.) At one point he even gets to use a tarragon vinegar Kate bottled years ago in a gazpacho—food and memory and love and life and delight and words all served up in one dish.
Of course, like any story of old age, the book is about loss—of friends, of hearing, of memories—but that it’s a book permits all of those things to live on, too. That he can pin the blame of his loss of hearing to his college days and a stereo with big-rig speakers also encapsulates so much of humanity. Here’s how he puts it:
“Immersing myself in Dvorak, Sibelius, Ravel and Stravinsky was so thrilling, especially at a high volume, that I took no heed of how the reverberations in such a confined space might damage my ears or how that damage might increase during the next fifteen years that I used that hi-fi system. There’s nothing like self-inflicted damage to keep the memory of its origin in mind.”
What reverberations of a well-observed life has Klaus left us with.