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In 'Tasha,' a son tries to make sense of his smart, difficult mother

Novelist Brian Morton's superb short memoir is about his relationship with his smart, difficult and funny mother.

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Other segments from the episode on April 26, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 26, 2022: Interview with Zain Asher; Review of Tasha

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. As the population ages, more and more memoirs are being written by adult children on the subject of caring for their elderly parents. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says "Bettyville" by George Hodgman was a standout on this topic. Her review today is on another she says is a pleasure to read, "Tasha" by Brian Morton. Here's Maureen.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: A third of the way through "Tasha," novelist Brian Morton's superb short memoir about his relationship with his smart, difficult and funny mother, he recalls a professor he had in college who once mentioned that he'd gone into therapy to work out some unresolved feelings about his parents. Morton remembers his younger self scornfully thinking, you're still trying to work out your stuff with your parents. Does it ever end? Christ, you must be 30 years old. And here I was at 60, Morton dryly comments - no, it never ends.

But one thing that sets "Tasha" apart from the usual one-sided literary conversation with a deceased parent is Morton's rigorous attempt to see his mother, Tasha, whole, as a person, not just in relation to him or, God forbid, an eccentric character. Another thing that distinguishes "Tasha" is Morton's elastic style as a writer, by turns droll, emotionally wrenching and profound. Despite the serious acclaim he's garnered for novels like "Starting Out In The Evening" and "Florence Gordon," Morton is one of those novelists who's still under the radar of the larger reading culture. Indeed, there's a scene here where Morton pokes fun at his own literary reputation. His mother, Tasha, has just been picked up by the police in his old hometown of Teaneck, N.J., after she's gotten into an argument with another elderly woman on the jitney transporting them to a nearby senior center. The police take Tasha to a state psychiatric facility. When a frantic Morton calls the police to find out what the heck happened, this screwball conversation ensues.

(Reading) You're the writer, right? the cop says. Was I famous? wonders Morton. Was I such a famous son of Teaneck that my name was known to the police? Your mother kept talking about you, says the cop. She kept saying you were going to write a book about the Teaneck police force and expose us all. I'm already on it, Morton says. You ever written anything I might have read, the cop asks? You as good as she says? No, Morton says. No to both.

Years before a series of falls and a stroke propelled Tasha's descent into dementia, Morton tells us his mother was the kind of woman who didn't respect boundaries, bursting into his teenage bedroom, even offering to act as a chauffeur on a date when Morton is in his 20s. It took me years, even decades, Morton says, to fashion a relationship with my mother in which I could affirm my love for her while placing limits on her. With Tasha's deterioration, Morton fears there will be no limit to her claim on him.

In her prime, Tasha had been a beloved teacher in Teaneck. But after the death of Morton's silent, Irish father, Tasha had become an eccentric, turning into a hoarder. In one maddening scene here, she refuses to let Morton throw out even so much as a swizzle stick from her jam-packed, mouse-infested house. Those of us who've already trailed a declining parent down this slope will understand what Morton means when he says that when it comes to senior services, the motto of this country is, you're on your own.

At one point, Morton hires a highly recommended live-in aide whom his mother ferociously dislikes. Unsure if Tasha's complaints are based in reality, Morton resorts to hiding a listening device in her cluttered house. When Morton listens in on a conversation, he's stunned by the caregiver's verbal abuse. But he's also aware of himself thinking, along with all his other thoughts, at least she doesn't beat her.

Shortly afterwards, Morton embarks on the dizzying search for a good nursing home. He describes a tour of a Jewish home that had a great reputation. It's like a country club, a social worker had told me. But when I visited the main room, it was the same old thing with the residents nodding out and the aides looking at their phones. You couldn't blame the aides. They were undertrained, underpaid, unorganized by any union. This was just the way things were in the land of no mercy.

The Land of No Mercy would have been a fine alternate title for this powerful memoir - no mercy for the elderly in need, no mercy for the labor force that cares for them, no mercy for the guilt-ridden, exhausted adult children. It's a wonder that with themes this heavy, Tasha is such a pleasure to read, oscillating between past and present, horror and hilarity, the big social picture and one son's ongoing attempt to work out some stuff with his mother.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Tasha" by Brian Morton. On tomorrow's show, we speak with Jessi Klein, former head writer of the Comedy Central series "Inside Amy Schumer." She'll talk about her new memoir, "I'll Show Myself Out: Essays On Midlife And Motherhood." She'll also talk about being the showrunner on a new Showtime series set at a home shopping network, starring SNL alumna Molly Shannon and Vanessa Bayer. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "THE BALANCE")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support this week from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "THE BALANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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