At 50, we can indulge the fiction that we are still middle-aged. By 60, that’s impossible, unless delusion prevails. Toronto writer Ian Brown is the opposite of delusional as he records the events of his 61st year, examining his own life and what it means to age. Brown manages to be both hilarious and serious, and I found his book impossible to put down. When I finished, I went right back to the beginning and started over.
Brown’s world is that of a middle-class Canadian male writer, husband, and father. The Boy in the Moon – about Brown’s relationship with his disabled son – won the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction. Like that book, Sixty is thoughtful, heartfelt, and fearless in revealing the author’s emotional landscape. Much of what Brown grapples with is at the forefront for anyone his age: health and financial security. But at the book’s core are the same themes that propelled The Boy in the Moon: identity and the value of the self.
In his short preface, Brown notes there’s not much written about aging, and as far as he could tell, no one had written a diary precisely on that topic. So he plunged into the task. He credits academic Amelia DeFalco for pointing out that aging “is the process of becoming the Other – the unknown entity that we all fear, the strange and exotic being that threatens us.” Reconciling the Other with ourselves is always a struggle.
What makes Brown’s diary so entrancing is his humour, often at his own expense. He worries about having a tiny pension given his years as a freelancer, but he has a level of material comfort that most people will never know. He has the grace to recognize his privilege and castigates himself for his whining. In one year, he travels to the Rockies to ski, New York to give a paper, Australia to give a keynote, England and Italy for a vacation, Banff for work, and Massachusetts to spend time with his brother.
Good food and drink are a large part of his life, as is remaining active. Naturally, the limitations of the aging body begin to affect him on the latter front. While skiing at Lake O’Hara, something he’s done for decades, he is aware of his growing fears of broken bones if he falls. In Massachusetts, he is a little more cautious than he used to be about surmounting rocks and barnacles to swim in the Atlantic. He has to wear hearing aids. His eyes are weakening.
But even while his body is a bit less vibrant than it once was, his mind still clicks along at a lively pace. He lists famous people who reached 60 the same year he did, noting certain achievements with barely disguised envy. Of those who share a birth year and died before hitting 60 – such as Hugo Chavéz and Stevie Ray Vaughn – Brown says, “I do not envy them anything.”
Along with the day-to-day musing, Brown includes references to all kinds of culture, high and low – but mostly high. He becomes entranced by Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which he sees as “a diary about time, and the things that make it stop.” He admires Knausgaard’s attention to detail, writing, “I need to stop time, and see what I remember and why, before I take a single further step.”
Consequently, while Brown’s book comprises a single year, it encompasses much of his life. He writes of his father, who lived to 99, and with whom he shared a warm relationship. He writes of his brother, Tim, with whom he is very close. He writes about his sisters with great fondness. He writes about his wife and his children, and he manages to be loving, candid, and respectful of their privacy. He writes about his friends, and I think they are lucky to be his friends: he clearly cares deeply about the people in his life.
Sixty is a lucid look at a particular kind of contemporary life. It is mercifully free of jargon, and the only thing Brown unpacks is luggage. He is rather fond of the word “fuck,” the verbal equivalent of a comma these days, and his voice comes across as natural. But it’s evident long before you reach the end that Brown has worked arduously on his prose, crafting sentences and adjusting pace. His ultimate message – to pay attention, to keep our eyes open, to look at “what is coming down the road” – is vital.