Like fellow Brit Muriel Spark, David Lodge is a writer of comedies with decidedly bleak underpinnings, and his new novel shares a funereal kinship with Spark's comic masterwork of death, Memento Mori. The main character in Deaf Sentence is losing his hearing, but as the punning nature of its title implies, the book offers a broader consideration of aging and mortality. Odd subject matter for comedy perhaps, but the veteran novelist manages to exploit the comic possibilities.

Desmond Bates is a linguistics professor in the north of England who has taken early retirement due to an ever - worsening hearing impairment. Although he wears a hearing aid - and his constant struggle with batteries, feedback and ambient noise supply some of the running gags in the book - he has trouble hearing in large, crowded places. This difficulty leads to frequent miscommunications, and one such misunderstanding launches the story. At an art gallery opening, while conversing with an attractive young American woman and not wishing to seem like a deaf old man, the sixty - ish don nods agreeably to everything the woman says, though he hears little of it. So, he doesn't know that he has made, and failed to keep, an appointment to meet the woman until he gets an exasperated call from her a few days later.

The woman is Alex Loom, an American graduate student who is studying the linguistic patterns in suicide notes. Despite Desmond's retired status, Alex asks him to be unofficial advisor on her dissertation. In the throes of a late midlife crisis, Desmond is susceptible to the much younger woman's charms, but she proves to be a peculiar girl, given to blatant sexual innuendos that at once titillate and disgust Desmond. In time, he suspects that this young woman is not playing straight with him, and he deflects her overtures - both academic and otherwise - but his efforts to keep her at arm's length are thwarted when she expertly ingratiates herself with his wife, Winifred, who is known as Fred.

Meanwhile, Desmond has a more serious issue to contend with, albeit one no less conducive to Lodge's comic manipulation. His 89 - year - old father, Harry, still lives on his own in London, but it is clear that this situation cannot continue. Harry, who obsesses about insignificant financial matters when not harping on the functions of his bowels and bladder, resists the idea of moving into a retirement home, but Desmond can see the writing on the wall. The maddeningly funny interaction between father and son provide some of the most memorable moments in the book.

Coping with so much everyday emotional disorder, Desmond can't quite deal with his encroaching sadness about life. His marriage to Fred - the second for both - has settled into a sort of domestic d

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