Writer Bill Littlefield had a quote in the back of his head as he was penning his latest novel. It pertains to the questions so many of us often ponder about the meaning of life.
The quote is: “We’re here to get each other through this thing, whatever it is,” from memoirist Mark Vonnegut, son of the late author Kurt Vonnegut.
Littlefield thinks our getting each other through life is a form of mercy. He’s called his new novel “Mercy.”
The book takes place in an upper-middle class Boston suburb, where the lawns are nicely manicured and the characters run from an older couple with a young son to a mob boss named Arthur Baladino, who has returned home after a long stint in prison.
Bill Littlefield is best known for his decades at WBUR, where he spent 25 years as host of the NPR sports program Only A Game. He’s also a longtime author. WBUR’s All Things Considered host Lisa Mullins invited Littlefield back to the studio to talk about his latest book.
Highlights from this interview have been lightly edited for clarity.
On the premise of “Mercy”
“I wish I could say that the idea of mercy inspired the whole thing, but it didn’t. I started with a little vignette about a little boy playing an imaginary baseball game in the backyard, and his dad is watching him. And his dad is telling a friend that he’s very uncomfortable with the fact that the boy has asked what happens when you die. And and the man is explaining, ‘I just didn’t know what to say. I tried this. I tried that. Oh, my goodness.’ And his friend is trying to reassure him that he’s done just fine. And the proof that he’s done just fine is they look out the back door, and the little boy is playing this imaginary baseball game and just having a wonderful time. So whatever the father has said hasn’t fouled the boy up in any way. … He’s worried that anything he said, the kid would pervert into something that would make him miserable and keep him from falling asleep at night.”
On how that story led to a series of vignettes, with mercy being the throughline
“I think the beginning of the appearance of mercy is with the friend consoling the father, saying, ‘Just don’t worry. It’ll be okay. Look, he’s happy. Look at him out there.’ … But as I started writing other stories that were taking place in the same neighborhood, I began to see that there were connections between the stories and between the characters. And the connection was that they all either had achieved or needed to achieve forgiveness and mercy, and they had to be in some way comforted. And sometimes they did that by remembering things that had happened and the things that they had known and seen and experienced much earlier in their lives, and some of them experienced by making new relationships.
“[In terms of] Arthur Baladino, the man who spent most of his life in prison and comes home to die, his widow is left alone in a big house. Of course, she’s been alone for many years because he’s been incarcerated, but at least he’s still been alive. And she makes a new relationship. She finds life in a new relationship. And that’s the mercy that rains down on her, that changes her. And all of the characters, to some extent, have that connection.”
On all the different forms of mercy, and Bill’s favorite scene in the book
“One of the characters is a kind of associate of Arthur Baladino, the mob boss, and he’s had a terrible life. And he lives alone in a crummy room, and the traffic is noisy outside [as he’s sleeping at night]. But much earlier in his life, as a teenager, he’s sick, hungover on the beach after a debauch, and just wants to be left alone. And a young woman he doesn’t know comes up and grabs him by the arm and hauls him into the ocean, and he falls on his face and the waves roll over him and it’s freezing cold. And he suddenly jumps up. And first, of course, he’s confused and angry about why this has happened. And then he realizes that he has no headache and he feels wonderful, and the cold water has completely cured him. And he says to the young woman, ‘Hey, how did you know how to do that?’ And she just shrugs, because she doesn’t know how she knew how to do that. She just did it. She just delivered. And it’s a merciful act. … He remembers her much later all his life, and of course, remembers her as beautiful. She must have been beautiful, right? Think about what she did! She must have been! That’s his point of view.
“It sustains him in the sense that he remembers it, and he remembers being worthy of that act. He wonders whether anybody will ever be that kind to him again.”
On the lasting impact of acts of mercy
“They don’t disappear from people’s lives. And some of them are far more long-lasting than that very short encounter on the beach. Some of them involve people’s lives changing, people falling in love. And that is very much the message in the novel: Some of the acts are very large, and some of them are very small. I mean, a relationship where two people commit themselves to each other for life is very large, at least in the lives of those two people. And a young woman pulling a young man into the sea is very small, but very large at that moment for the man who’s suddenly made whole.”