That grim stillness is disrupted on the opening page with the arrival of a “letter that would change everything.” Queenie Hennessy, a woman Harold worked with 20 years ago, has written to say goodbye; she’s dying of cancer. Recalling the “stout, plain-looking woman,” he composes a bland note of condolence and walks over to the post office. But along the way, he decides instead to deliver it by hand to Queenie’s hospice. That is, he decides to keep walking, past the post office, out of town and another 500 miles.
That marvelous note of absurdity tempers the pain that runs beneath this whole novel. Joyce has no interest in mocking Harold; she just describes his quixotic trek in a gentle, matter-of-fact voice, mile after mile. At 65, he’s never walked farther than his own driveway. He has no map, cellphone or change of clothes, and his thin yachting shoes couldn’t be less appropriate for such a journey across England. “Harold would have been the first to admit that there were elements to his plan that were not finely tuned,” Joyce writes. But when the idea of saving Queenie blooms in the fallow soil of his mind, he can’t be stopped. “I will keep walking,” he declares, “and she must keep living.”
Is this a late midlife crisis? Is Harold suffering the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s, or has he fallen under a spiritual delusion? Shouldn’t someone drive down the street and fetch him home before he hurts himself?
For all of us perfectly responsible, stoop-shouldered suburbanites wearing a path in the living-room carpet, Harold’s ridiculous journey is a cause for celebration. This is Walter Mitty skydiving. This is J. Alfred Prufrock not just eating that peach, but throwing the pit out the window, rolling up his trousers and whistling to those hot mermaids. Released from the cage of his own passivity, Harold feels transformed, though he keeps his tie on. “The abundance of new life was enough to make him giddy,” Joyce writes. “England opened beneath his feet, and the feeling of freedom, of pushing into the unknown, was so exhilarating he had to smile. He was in the world by himself and nothing could get in the way or ask him to mow the lawn.”
If Joyce allows Harold these initial moments of euphoria, she quickly proves herself a stern realist. Over the days and weeks that follow, the physical demands of such a trip take their bloody toll. This may be the first novel that gives you sympathy blisters. And Harold’s ravaged feet are the least of his problems. All this free time in changing surroundings inspires great waves of remembering and reconsideration — most of it miserable. How did his once-happy marriage wither into such aggrieved silence? Why was he such a timid father to the boy he loved? What drives him, after all these years to reach out to Queenie? Considering those questions is far more agonizing for Harold than walking 500 miles in his taped-up shoes.