Paul Lisicky Is Gay. Denise Gess Was Straight. 'The Narrow Door' Is Their Epic Love Story.

02/22/2016 07:04 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2017

"The best book about friendship I've ever read." That's what I wrote, some years ago, about Let's Take the Long Way Home, Gail Caldwell's memoir of her friendship with Caroline Knapp. Two writers, private in the important ways, both triumphantly sober --- and then Caroline was diagnosed with cancer and died, seven weeks later, at 42. Caldwell's writing is restrained, but no matter. Her book rips your heart out.

"The Narrow Door" is just as good. But much more complicated. When Paul Lisicky meets Denise Gess in the early 1980s, he's 23, a fledgling writer, a graduate student at Rutgers. She's 30, a teaching assistant, author of a much-praised novel, "Good Deeds." Their professional differences are the least of it. He's an introvert, in the closet, nervous in the classroom. She's open, inspiring, the kind of teacher who collects disciples. And yet they become close friends, "a little bit in love... and not able to say it."

All this changes over the years. She has an affair with a Famous Writer (John Irving), who spurns her; he has an affair with a Famous Writer (Mark Doty), and marries him. His books get published; hers have trouble finding a home. And then there is the not small matter of her personality. Her smile "could turn diamonds to black powder," but Denise is also contentious, redlining emotion on a calm day --- at some point, she'd make Jesus look for the exit.

And, of course, she dies. Lung cancer, brain cancer, even cancer in her heart. But on the way to that slow, painful death, she is fiercely herself --- that is, emotional and grateful. Which is where the book starts: Election Night, 2008, a few months before her death. We're in Philadelphia, in Denise's final apartment, the one she moved to because she could no longer climb the stairs. Here's the first paragraph:

Our feet are warm. Our faces shine. The room is getting dark, the night coming a little sooner these days. Should I turn on a lamp? Then the prospect of dinner changes our placement toward that dark. The chicken stew on the trivet. The moist leaves in the hard black bowl. The macaroni and cheese still bubbling, although it's long been out of the oven. For a moment, we're no longer eight years into the new century, in Philadelphia, in a loft apartment that's too big for us, but inside a cave, a tight, sweet space. We give our joints and muscles over to the heat of it, the spell, the hearth at the center of things. Our gestures say, we're here for you, time. We're all right with you. We're not straining against your grasp. No concerns about the side effects of the latest round of chemo earlier in the day. No cheering on the small miracle of the meal, the first meal she's cooked since July's diagnosis. No anxieties about the election, the results of which will crackle across the country, throughout the world. No steroids, no PET scans, no CAT scans, no ports, no hoods, no wigs, no hair coming out in wads--none of it. We are the four points of the clock: her mother at three, her sister at six, me at nine, Denise at midnight. See how we hold that clock in place? Nothing but us now, one breath, one body in the room. This table, this bread, these forks lifting again and again to our mouths.

Gorgeous, say I. And so does Jennifer Senior, in The New York Times: "She glows on the page, looking for all the world like a woman who's swallowed the moon."

After dinner? Denise gets up and dances. "Not a timid dancing, but a life-large, goofy, it's-great-to-be-in-my-skin dancing." That shift in mood mirrors the book's shifts in time. "The Narrow Door" jumps around, but not in an arty or "literary" way. It's how Lisicky seems to remember Denise. Listening to Joni Mitchell, and then a digression on Joni. During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the earthquake in Haiti. And a parallel story, set against Denise's bewildering kaleidoscope of love affairs: Paul's evolution as a lover and then husband. And then...but let's leave Paul's story there.

Beyond the pleasure of reading a book that is exemplary, start to finish, what's in "The Narrow Door" for you? Simply this: What's the condition of your friendships? How are you getting on with the people who are most important to you? Are you close? Are you drifting apart? In one incisive paragraph, Lisicky describes a scenario we know:

Losing a lover: You don't need to be told how hard it is... It's different with a friend. The breaking up is more diffuse, though breakup isn't even the right word for it. Whatever it is, it happens over time, and soon old patterns are breaking: no email in the morning, no phone call at night. A week goes by, silence. Another week, a deeper silence.

There's a long estrangement in the Denise-and-Paul story. And that's just one of many twists and turns in this complicated relationship and in Paul's equally complicated relationship with his husband. Preview of that story: Paul is the successor to Mark Doty's previous lover, gone now for 16 years. But not really gone. Paul has had to train himself not to think "replacement --- I am not his great love."

The book takes a toll. The high drama sometimes wore me out --- I think my life is intense, but these people are professionals --- and yet that serves the book. In the inevitable deathbed chapter, life slowed for me as it did for everyone in that room: "time without boundaries."

Sure, I cried, and often. But more, "The Narrow Door" made me want to call a few people, and say the magic words, and feel at home in the world. It's hard to think of a book that can give you more than that.
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Listen: Paul Lisicky reads from the book, click here and here.

In Memoriam: A friend evokes Denise here.

[cross-posted from HeadButler.com]