book review a heart that works by rob delaney

Book Review: “A Heart That Works,” by Rob Delaney

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Memoirs by grieving parents obviously have some similarities; what makes the best of them unique is each writer’s voice. I was reminded, up to a point, of Jayson Greene’s magnificent memoir about his young daughter’s death, “Once More We Saw Stars.” But “A Heart That Works” is a book about grief as only Delaney could write it. Indeed, it is the work of a more mature writer than the one who published his first memoir in 2013 — the zany, confessional “Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.” Though it will inevitably be described by some as “raw,” I’d like to pre-emptively disagree. True, the book is lit up with flashes of red-hot fury and despair: “You wish you could take a kitchen knife and stick it into yourself … tear apart skin, fat, muscle and viscera, and pull your child out of you again and kiss them and hold them and try frantically to fix what you couldn’t fix the first time.”

There’s nothing undercooked or unpolished, however, about the captivating spiral narrative Delaney crafts, doling out memories and digressions with precision and modulating the emotional volume with impressive control. He touches on his son’s death, spins away into a poignant contemplation of the invisible burdens of strangers or a profanity-laced swipe at the American health care system, then comes back to his central loss, again and again. Will you cry? Yes, unless you have no soul. You’ll also have space to catch your breath.

And you will laugh, because this book is often miraculously funny — a fact that won’t surprise fans of Delaney’s stand-up comedy or the television series “Catastrophe,” which he created with Sharon Horgan. His absurdist’s touch makes otherwise mundane sentences bubble with playfulness. Infant Henry is “a delightful and smooth little nugget.” Life in a London flat with three small boys feels like “a ramshackle zoo on the edge of town.”

Even some of the darkest moments are slashed through with light. When his father-in-law weeps, “I wish it was me instead of Henry,” Delaney responds, “We do too, Richard.” The family laughs through their tears in that moment, as did I, reading about it. No one wants our parents to die, but isn’t it the preferred order for the old folks to go before the kids? We laugh because it’s true. And that’s another miracle about this book: Whether or not readers relate to the specifics of this father-son relationship — whether or not, say, you have ever had to administer tracheostomy care — it’s impossible not to recognize the joys and heartbreaks of our shared human condition. The word I wrote most frequently in the margins of my copy was, YES.

Humor may provide momentary respite, but what keeps this family afloat throughout the long months of Henry’s illness, hospitalizations and surgeries is their devotion to one another. Delaney and his wife, Leah, hole up in bed watching scary movies, a strange comfort that feels like “a warm bath.” When it becomes clear that to continue treatment will only increase Henry’s suffering, not save his life, they conclude, “Loving him meant we had to let the cancer spread and kill him.” They wait, then, for the inevitable, clinging to each other, their extended family and Henry’s two older brothers. So much is unbearably out of their control, but they learn it is possible for their hearts to continue to beat: “We were in hell and we were loving each other.”