There is much meditation, often comic or witty, on illness, aging, and dying in Alison Lurie's The Last Resort, a novel about mostly upper-middle-class academic or artistic types in Key West dealing with the complications of love, marriage, and friendship. Perhaps it is not surprising that in her first novel in ten years the author, now 71, should add to her trademark concern with crises in the lives of well-educated people the further problems associated with moving along in years.

Not that everyone in the novel is so very far along, but its central character, Wilkie Walker, is. Wilkie is 70. A writer and naturalist whose once widespread acclaim is fading, he is restless and lethargic and gnawed by the fear that he has colon cancer. In "the so-called civilized countries," Wilkie thinks, the elderly "are made to survive past their natural life span in some pathetic institution like the home for bony, sick old cows he had seen in India." He thinks he would commit suicide if not for concern for his beloved wife, Jenny.

Jenny, 24 years his junior, has been not only a devoted and loving wife for the 25 years of their marriage, but an active participant in his work. Terribly worried about Wilkie's depression, she hopes a stay in Key West will brighten his spirits. When she suggests it, Wilkie thinks it's possibly a place he could kill himself and make it look like an accident.

To Wilkie, death is an Ingmar Bergmanesque Grim Reaper. The Walkers's longtime friend, Molly Hopkins, thinks of death as a flying red dinosaur swooping down to snatch up its victims. Now living in sad widowhood and arthritic pain in Key West during the winter, Molly once was a noted New Yorker artist when they ran things "more attractive than the ugly cartoon covers they have now." Perry Jackson, known as Jacko, pictures death as a "small, very ugly man all in black, his pale face marked with purple splotches." Jacko, a beautiful young gardener and friend of Molly's, is beginning to receive physical "signals" of the AIDS he carries.

Jacko is also friends with Lee Weiss, the lesbian owner of a guest house for women. Lee used to be a therapist until she realized that "she was helping people she didn't like to become strong and confident enough to do things she didn't like, such as write deceptive advertising." Lee says Key West is called the Last Resort "not just because it was at the end of the Keys, but because it was where you went when other places hadn't worked out." Things in Oklahoma haven't been working out for Barbie Mumpson Hickock, Jacko's too-good and ineffectual cousin, the sort of person Molly's English professor husband used to call an Eeyore, "someone who deliberately chose to be helpless and depressed." Barbie, who is under everyone's thumb, especially that of her philandering politician husband, considers herself so hopeless "when anybody asks me something, I don't think first, I just kinda tell the truth" that she too contemplates suicide.

Wilkie, Jenny, Molly, Jacko, Lee, Barbie, Barbie's virago mother, Myra, and a semi-bogus poet named Gerry are the main ingredients in Lurie's delicious cocktail. Stirred, not shaken, it goes down as neatly as any of her previous ironic, comic novels of ideas. It has several moments of farce, particularly Wilkie's attempts at suicide, which are continually thwarted, once by another suicide. ("Wilkie was killing time until the time came to kill himself.") Lee falls in love with Jenny, and it is reciprocated. The odious Gerry does, too, and it is not. Barbie finds happiness championing the manatee. Molly finds reason to keep on keeping on. Jacko's green-thumbed mother, Dorrie, visiting from Oklahoma, finds great pleasure in the lush Keys and decides to stay with her son, which pleases him.

As for Wilkie, he discovers that life is not as grim as he perceived it. It looks as if his and Jenny's life, despite her relationship with Lee, of which he knows nothing, will purr along.

Lurie has often been compared to Jane Austen. I think rather of Barbara Pym (who has been called wrongly, I believe the modern Austen). Pym's fictional world is in some ways more restricted than Lurie's, but there is the same satiric use of time and place, key elements in both writers' fiction. And usually, as in The Last Resort, there is an ending that, while not sitcom happy, is satisfactory to all concerned.

Reviewed by Roger Miller.

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