Roommates/Max Apple: Reflections

Thursday, December 5, 2013

So sometimes I do things backwards. I know all about Max Apple (of course!), I read Max Apple stories, I do an actual reading with Max Apple (courtesy of Lisa Zeidner and Rutgers-Camden), I occasionally say hello to Max at our University of Pennsylvania (where he is a full-time faculty member famous for his wisdom), and then I have his Fulbright-winning daughter, Leah, in my memoir class, and then I write about this daughter's passion for dance and kids, and then I attend an event in which Max's son, Sam, who is also a writer and who also teaches at Penn, practically puts me on the floor with laughter as he straightfacedly reads "God's Workshop" (read it here, but be forewarned), and then I go home and order one of Max's famous books, Roommates.

Which was published in 1994.

Which was endorsed by my friend Rosellen Brown.

Which I read this morning.

Which, like everybody else who has ever read Roommates, I loved.

It's not a book that needs a Beth Kephart drumroll. It's not a story that could ever be invented. It's a true tale about a grandson and his grandfather (nearly fractious, incurably inseparable) and the life they live as roommates. Not just through Max's childhood, but through Max's years at the University of Michigan as well, when Rocky, 93, rules with an iron fist and a Yiddish tongue. Roommates as Max (secretly) falls in love. Roommates when Max finally settles down with the woman he loves, and the whole bunch of them move to Texas for Max's teaching job. Rocky grows older, Max's family grows larger, and Debby, Max's so-alive wife, begins to see two of things when there is just one. It's the beginning of a disease no one can stop, and Rocky, now 103, steps in and steps up—irascible, loving.

I know this story happened long ago. I know that time moves on and books freeze things and that there will always be that disconnect when reading autobiography and memoir. Still, I read this book and saw the story unfold in this very right now. I felt it—deeply. I believed it—wholly. I understood its lore.

It's a 1994 book that feels as if it were written yesterday.

Here's a scene I love, when Rocky decides that he, too, has a story to tell, a story that might make the struggling family some extra cash:

I shook his hand and hugged him. He moved away.

"Let me congratulate you. It's no small thing to write ninety-five pages."

"When it's in the magazines and they pay you, then you'll congratulate."

He didn't fool me. Even a hundred years doesn't cover an author's pride. He didn't know what fiction was, had never heard of any bestsellers, and in money anything beyond a hundred was a fortune. But he did know from sitting all those hours with his face an inch from the page that one word makes the next one possible and that even when it's all true, the ways in which the truth collects itself into a story can be as tricky as lies.

He drank a cup of coffee and sat down to squint at the television. "It's not as easy as I thought," he said, "but making a good dough is even harder."


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