The strip of territory that lies between marriage and divorce is fertile ground for fiction. In this unincorporated subdivision of the estranged and bereaved everyone has had their props knocked out. It’s a place where odd friendships are struck, irregular hours are kept, quantities of late-night TV are watched, and food is consumed in front of open refrigerators.
As this novel begins, Barry Glassman has been eased out of his marriage by his wife, Marilyn, and into this new neighborhood. At first he tries to use his memories to nurse his marriage back to life: ”Marilyn married me because I freed her of her phobias, not only of neighborhood dogs and cats, but of heights and swimming….In the calm, murky waters off City Island, I taught her to do the dead man’s float, and in my best hypnotic chant repeated, ‘You’re a salmon, a tuna, you’re as adorable as a red snapper. You won’t go down…”’
But Marilyn’s in different waters now and wants Barry out of the pool. Reluctantly he packs and eventually makes his transition — using the Jewish idiom of the book — from man to mensch.
A simple enough tale, The Great Letter E has more fancy window dressing than Saks at Christmas. The E of the title hangs outside Barry’s optometry shop. Like his favorite philosopher, Spinoza, Barry is a grinder of lenses (his name is Glassman, remember?), and sure enough he befriends a blind man named Messenger. Too bad about all this, as the novel is both a witty and humane story of the amazing regenerative properties of the soul, even the middle-aged soul. B