Saturday, June 24, 2023

Lessons from The Fool of New York City

You wake up in a room you don’t recognize. You shiver inside a coat you’ve never seen before. You touch your face, which you know is yours but you can’t identify it. You look out the window at a city, and you have no idea how you got here. 

You have taken a wrong turn somewhere; you have fallen asleep and lost yourself. And now you are awake again but have not refound yourself.

So begins The Fool of New York City by Michael O’Brien. The helpless protagonist is completely lost: he has no memory of his past, and the little glimpses he has into his locked-away memories could be unreliable. For example, he believes his name to be Francisco De Goya, the Spanish artist. 

Thankfully, Francisco does not have to survive on his own for long. A giant named Billy Revere comes to his aid. At first Francisco shrinks from the giant’s overwhelming presence, suspecting that this stranger may wish him ill-will. Billy’s acts of generosity, kindness, and thoughtfulness soon convince Francisco otherwise.

For here is immense strength, and it is mastered. Here is perfect form and balance, yet it is without vanity. This man does no harm.

As someone who once suffered from amnesia himself, Billy has special empathy for Francisco and goes to great lengths to help him remember, following little clues that may hold deeper meaning. 

There are layers in existence.

O’Brien does an incredible job of slowly unraveling the mystery of Francisco’s life, unfolding what led him to this state and revealing that he and Billy have more in common than they first believed. The author uses a powerful metaphor of the pond: relics of the past, hidden at the murky bottom underneath the water, that Francisco tries to see. Autumn leaves of years ago hide the truth of what has happened to him. Francisco tries to cross the frozen pond and cracks appear, the truth leaking through … and possibly drowning him in its pain. Can Francisco dredge through the pain of his past to find clear waters?

I found it fascinating that O’Brien opened his novel in the second person point of view, something I’ve only read in a “choose-your-own-adventure” book. But it was a brilliant tactic because he places the reader in the shoes of this protagonist who is so lost. Haven’t we all felt that sometimes, to some degree? Have you ever gazed at yourself in the mirror and wondered who you’ve become? 

A losing can be a better kind of finding.

Much of this book deals with the idea of identity. Who are we, at our essence? Sometimes it takes a moment of crisis to strip away pretenses and reveal the truth at the core of our person. 

And when we think that we know someone, we can be wrong. Appearances can be deceiving. Many characters in the book came across Billy, an anomaly for his enormity, and shunned him or failed to see him as a person: as someone more than his incredible height of 7 feet, 11.5 inches. Who is the fool then?

Also: what defines us? Both Billy and Francisco experienced great pain in their pasts. Billy hurries into a crisis situation, like his namesake Paul Revere, warning of danger and trying to help—even placing himself in harm’s way. He took his pain and let it define him in a positive way: he became a rescuer because he knew what it felt like to be lost. That’s his identity.

Billy was who he was not only because of his nature and upbringing but also by his personal sufferings—rather, by what he had done with them.

Francisco’s challenge is to take his pain and not let it chain him anymore. 

… when a person faces himself—truly faces himself for what he is—he can make a new start, deal with the weaknesses and work on strengthening the better parts.

You are not the creation of the things that happen to you.

Do I let my past hurts define me in a negative way that prevents me from being fully free? This book is one of transformations: from lost to found, from hurt to healed, from past to present.

You can bury the memory and think it’s dealt with, done and gone. It is never gone, but it must be transformed into something that gives us life. To overcome death, you must create life.

I hope that you have the courage to dive into the deep waters of your history and then break free to the surface of the water, renewed and strengthened in the essence of who you truly are: you are more than the bad things that happen to you. 

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