The Kept Man
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Jami Attenberg’s The Kept Man is a poetic meditation on love and loss, told from the perspective of a woman facing an unbearable dilemma. Set in Brooklyn, New York, the story follows a pivotal summer in the life of Jarvis Miller, whose husband, Martin, has spent the last six years in an irreversible coma. Although the possibility of his recovery has long since vanished, Jarvis has been unable to move on. Martin’s sudden rise to fame in the art world—fueled by the tragedy of his untimely debilitation—has allowed her to retreat completely, surrounded by his artwork and supported by the income it generates. She spends her days and nights cocooned in the loft they once shared, leaving only to visit him at the assisted living facility that keeps his inert body alive. Jarvis cannot bear to let her husband die, but she has also grown increasingly aware that she cannot move forward while he is still living.
Jarvis’ road out of her own semi-comatose state begins with a random mishap: her washing machine breaks down. Forced to leave home in search of a laundromat, she makes the acquaintance of three intriguing men who refer to themselves as the “Kept Man Club”—each member supported by a financially successful wife. Jarvis turns to these men for friendship, but one of them, Mal, is interested in something more, and another, Scott, is slowly capturing her heart. Energized by these new relationships, Jarvis begins to take a more active approach to her life, including her duties as gatekeeper to Martin’s estate. Martin’s art dealer, Alice, and his best friend, Davis, seem particularly anxious to keep her away from a specific series of photos taken over the course of their marriage. Dreading what she may find but determined to know the truth, Jarvis talks her way into Alice’s studio and makes off with the photos. The images they capture reveal a different side of Martin—one that was seemingly less devoted to her than Jarvis had ever suspected.
At its heart, The Kept Man is a deftly observed character study of a complex and fascinating woman. At once vulnerable and bold, Jarvis Miller is an engrossingly believable heroine whose mistakes are as revealing as her triumphs. Anger at her husband’s hidden past leads Jarvis first into Mal’s bedroom and then to a humiliating rejection by Scott. Through these impulsive and at times ill-conceived actions, she finds a way to forgive her husband, and through forgiveness comes to peace with the idea of letting him go. Although the decision to remove Martin from life support whips up a firestorm of protests and condemnation, Jarvis remains committed to her course of action. While the outside world debates questions of morality, Jarvis remains driven by love—a love strong enough, finally, to say goodbye.
Jami Attenberg is the author of the story collection Instant Love. She has written for Jane, Salon, Nylon, Print, the San Francisco Chronicle, Entertainment Weekly, and Time Out New York, and her fiction has appeared in Nerve, Pindeldyboz, Spork, and Bullfight Review. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
- Missy’s estimation of the “kept men” is harsh: “Not for nothing, Jarvis, but where I come from, we’d call these guys maricones.” Do you agree with her assessment? What is your impression of these characters?
- Jarvis’ observations about Williamsburg, Brooklyn—a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood—form a running thread throughout the book. Why do you think the author chose to set her story in this location? What do Jarvis’ thoughts about her neighborhood reveal about her character? Is there a thematic significance to this setting?
- Jarvis is fascinated by Sylvie Porter’s series of photographs depicting a cat on the streets of the East Village. Another cat hisses at Jarvis in Martin’s room, and Sylvie Porter later connects the two in her deteriorating mind. Discuss the symbolic importance of the cat, and how it connects to the larger themes of the novel.
- Jarvis is very aware of appearances: her fondest images of her family revolve around the way they dressed; her first impression of the “kept men” is based on their looks and their style; her selection of a dress for Scott’s dinner party is calculated to produce a specific effect. How does this focus on appearances shape Jarvis’ character? How does it inform her relationship with her husband and his work?
- At one point, Jarvis reflects on her relationship with her father, asking, “Is she cruel for abandoning her father? …the man she knew as her father is no longer there.… There is an exterior, there is a shell, a skin, but inside, he’s gone.” How does this relationship affect the choices Jarvis makes in her life, specifically regarding her husband? What parallels can be drawn between her experience with her father and with Martin?
- Early on, Mal recounts the story of his brother-in-law, who went fly-fishing in Montana for one weekend and ended up leaving his girlfriend to live there. Near the end, we learn of Martin’s similar disappearance to a cabin along the Snake River in Oregon. What is the significance of these parallel tales to the story and themes of the novel?
- Jarvis remembers Martin as a man whose “entire life, every ounce of it, every breath, was committed to creating art.” But she also wonders, “…who was he besides an artist? And who was I to him? Nothing more than part of a palette.” Do you think she is right in this assessment? Overall, what impression of artists and their art does the book leave you with?
- The story of The Kept Man bears obviously similarities to the Terri Schiavo case. Did reading this book affect your opinion on the issues involved? Do you believe that if Jarvis had eventually “pulled the plug” on her husband that it would have been morally justifiable?