Abbott’s The Upright Piano Player is a concise, haunting work, a short, brilliantly observed novel that centers on Henry Cage as he encounters death, violence, and the ramifications of his wife‘s past infidelity. Beginning at the end, we first meet Henry at the funeral for his grandson Hal.
His daughter-in-law is inconsolable; his son falls into his arms - “it was an accident, Dad - an accident.”
As his gentle story unfolds, Hal’s accidental death is not the only tragedy of Henry’s existence. The place is London, the time 1999, and Henry has retired after almost thirty years managing Henry Cage & Partners, the company he founded. Complete with a gold pen from his clients, and from the staff an antique watch, Henry retreats to the relative peace of his double-fronted two-story just off Fulham road.
With his ex-wife, Nessa, living in Florida and battling terminal cancer, Henry contemplates his son’s request to head north to Norfolk to help him run a bookshop. Instead, in a type of quiet desperation, he turns to his old routines
- reading his favorite books, playing jazz on his upright piano - while pondering the fast approach
of the twilight of his life.
On Millennium Eve on the banks of the Thames, events really start to spiral out of control. Caught in the throngs of the celebrating masses, Henry is head-butted by a drunken working-class thug.
His nose bleeding and his clothes splattered with mud, Henry appears as a vagrant, a state of grace that begins to symbolize
the many years of upheaval in his life. Soon after he visits a brasserie in Sloane Square,
arriving early and staring at other women, most recently an attractive young girl who sits with her boyfriend at a corner table.
A man of fixed routines, Henry is always respectful of the agendas of others
- but from the outset, Abbott makes it clear that his protagonist’s actions are a stark reminder of life’s delicate balance. Then the harassment begins, letters
calling him a pervert. The random violence on Westminster bridge begins to change Henry; he has become a victim. As the harassment gets worse, the police concede that the vandalism to the front of Henry’s house is targeted.
Short of extending the evening patrols, there is little else they can do.
Thus Abbott captures the unique existential spirit of contemporary existence, casting Henry as a man on the downside of life,
grappling for a place within our nihilistic world. Other characters appear: young Maude, who sleeps with Henry
and harbors foolish dreams of Paris and Rome; and loyal Jack, Nessa’s best friend, who adopts Henry’s accent and cadence and stays with Nessa until the very end. Even the routines of Mrs. Abraham, Henry’s stalwart cleaning lady, are perfectly captured in her life of carefully contrived small treats built around “the enemy of dirt.”
Fluid and elegiac, filled with somber, serious tones, the author’s writing is reminiscent of the great Ian McEwan. Abbott's Henry is similarly graceful, and occasionally awkward, as he moves though an amoral and often vituperative landscape, basically well-meaning and kind but buffeted by a
callous, uncaring world.