The Diners, Stephen Fox’s latest novel, takes us to a Christmas dinner where nine long-time friends gather in an unnamed community in northern California. This is the seventh year the clan has met at the home of Betty Crown, a widow, and a teacher of philosophy. At the beginning, Tom Whelan, a history teacher, is not enthusiastic about yet another Christmas dinner at Betty’s. But he and his wife Sarah, another philosophy teacher, pack up their shrimp dish, grab their bottle of wine and set off. In addition to the Whelans and Betty Crown, there are two other couples and two additional women at the dinner. All the characters are in their seventies or older, and other than a retired medical doctor and his artist wife, the guests are, or were, university teachers. Though they share race, age and education, the diners come from interesting and diverse backgrounds that are revealed as we proceed through the story.
There is an element of jokey tension, particularly among the three men, but basically the novel details the conversation that takes place during the course of the evening. As one might suspect, the banter involves subjects related both to the characters’ professions and their advanced years. One subject, for example, is dementia. We learn that Betty’s late husband, an attorney, suffered from it though no one in the group apparently realized it, and we get an “academic” discussion of the types and causes of the mental decline we call dementia.
Fox employs an interesting approach to fiction. He blends the typical techniques of scene description, action, character development and conversation with factual, historical and political exposition. Subjects other than dementia, include teaching, baseball history, the environment, racism, service in, and opposition to, the Vietnam war. Before the evening is over, the historian Tom Whelan prophecies a dystopian future for the United States, and in the poignant final chapter we learn how in the year following the dinner, age and circumstance bring great changes to the lives of each of the nine characters. I very much enjoyed the novel, perhaps because I so closely share the age and history of the characters. Anyone who remembers Sal “The Barber” Maglie and the ship Calypso, will enjoy being a guest at Betty Crown’s Christmas party.