Max Tivoli, the character at the center of Andrew Sean Greer's remarkable new novel, starts life with a bang. Max is conceived in Golden Gate Park in 1870 at the moment when Blossom Rock is dynamited in San Francisco Bay, creating the largest explosion in the city's history. This, his mother thinks, is what jolts Max's cells into backward growth, the reason that he ages in reverse.
As Max himself explains in The Confessions of Max Tivoli, his real age and the age he appears to be always total 70 years. As an infant, he has the wrinkles and white hair of a man in his late 60s and, in his old age, he looks like his 11-year-old son, Sammy. Resembling a 70-year-old in the year of his birth, Max knows exactly the year he will die: 1941. He forever wears this number, the mark of his fate, on a gold chain.
Love is a difficult and heartbreaking experience for Max. At 17, he is attracted to 14-year-old Alice, but, since he appears to be 53, it is Alice's widowed mother who throws herself at him. Pursuing the beautiful Alice becomes an obsession for Max throughout his life.
In his early years, Max's parents implore him, "Be what they think you are." Max lives by this rule with only two exceptions, telling his secret to his lifelong friend Hughie and to Alice, the love of his life.
A gifted storyteller who has written one previous novel (The Path of Minor Planets), Greer divides his tale into three parts: Max's childhood as an old man, the middle years when he is close to the age he appears to be, and his later years in the body of a young boy. The account of Max's growing young while Hughie and Alice grow old is particularly intriguing, and Greer skillfully explores the different reactions of these two complex confidantes.
With its evocative turn-of-the-century San Francisco setting, The Confessions of Max Tivoli is a strikingly original and beautifully told story that offers a fresh perspective on questions of love and age.
Alice Pelland writes from Hillsborough, North Carolina.