Baldly speaking, most of Donald Antrim’s characters in the collection The Emerald Light in the Air suffer from some form of mental instability, clinical depression or bipolar disorder. Men and women on the verge of a nervous breakdown is a flip summary. But that easy review shortchanges Antrim’s perceptive, nuanced tales. This is not just a tour of mental illness. These are stories of people who’ve survived one of life’s most harrowing circumstance – the rebellion of an individual’s brain – and what it takes to keep on surviving. These are stories of the walking wounded.
So we have Christopher and Susan in “Solace” living on the couches of friends and only spending nights together when one or the other housesits for an acquaintance. In “He Knew,” Stephen and Alice venture from their Greenwich apartment where they live as partial shut-ins for a rare day of shopping. And in “Another Manhattan,” we witness the ease at which Jim launches into — yet another — manic episode.
Beset by a psyche poorly equipped to navigate reality, Antrim’s fragile creatures step tentatively through existence, their futures tinged with the possibility of mental collapse. The slightest variation in routine can send them scurrying back to the psych ward, palliative pharmaceuticals, or worse, self-treatment with drugs and alcohol — if not the ultimate resolution, which hovers over these men and women like a dark bird. In these stories, the haloed glow of streetlights seeping around window shades at night, a shopping spree on Madison Avenue, or the green tinge of the sky just before a thunderstorm are not simply narrative details, but harbingers of impending psychiatric events.
And yet there is respite, maybe even hope. Antrim’s characters find support with each other, mutual dories amidst the gale. In “Solace,” Christopher and Susan’s special nights are their rafts. While braving the outside world, Stephen and Alice of “He Knew” survive the foray by managing each other’s moods and medications. And while Jim from “Another Manhattan,” seems the perfect case of a person who won’t make it, it’s clear that without his wife Kate, the story’s final scene would be much, much worse.
Yet, in these pairs, the collection also poses a counterbalancing question: when do you cut and run? How beholden are you to a companion, a lover, who seems bent on self-destruction? These people suspect they might be better off without each other. The gentle teasing Stephen and Alice engage in on their day out descends into anger and recrimination. Christopher and Susan legitimize each other’s homeless status. Jim and Kate can barely be in the same room together. Their relationship maintains its bond through a mix of stored grievances and long-time devotion that forms a particularly toxic sludge.
But despite this gloom, Antrim often ends a story with the possibility of hope. Stephen, in the closing lines of “He Knew,” hopes that he and Alice might soon conceive. Stephen thinks in the story’s final lines, “the child, their son, perhaps — a boy like him! — and believing as best he could that their family was drawing close, was near at last.”