The challenge for an author who writes about a lonely character is to make that character interesting—and keep him that way. Happily, this is what Lori Ostlund has done in After the Parade, her sensitive and realistic tale of the excruciatingly lonely Aaron Englund. What’s intriguing about him is that he seems not to mind his loneliness. This may seem odd, for the difference between loneliness and solitude is that a person minds the former and doesn’t mind the latter. But Aaron holds his pain like a shield against a world that never had much use for him.
The story alternates between scenes of Aaron’s childhood and his early middle age, at a moment when he is contemplating just how life ended up this way. We start with his parents, who should have listened to Philip Larkin and never reproduced in the first place. Aaron’s dad was a brute who didn’t even bother to hide his hatred of his sensitive son. Aaron’s mother loved him for a time, but abandoned him when he was a teenager. Aaron, too gentle or maybe too passive to embrace his father’s brutality, learns much from this disastrous woman. When we meet Aaron, he is preparing to leave his partner of 20 years with a cold efficiency. At least Aaron tells him goodbye.
Still, Ostlund—a Flannery O’Connor Award winner who spent 15 years shaping this novel—gives us reason to hope for her troubled protagonist. Aaron is befriended by a detective whose childhood was as rotten as his, and a nice man he meets in a café seems interested in him. And he is loved—by his ESL students; by his ex-boyfriend, Walter, in spite of everything; and especially by Walter’s sister, whose support helps him do a hard thing near the book’s end. After the Parade is a sad book, but a hopeful one.