His name is Jonathan Rebeck. He's 53 years old and lives in a cemetery in the Bronx that, for some reason, he cannot leave. He has been there for 19 years. He isn't a ghost, but he might as well be, because he has given up on life and is more dead than alive. Rebeck's days are spent as if he were a modern day Charon, greeting the confused and forlorn ghosts of the recently departed, talking to them, playing chess with them, until their memories of their lives fade sufficiently that they are ready to move on to wherever it is they go. Then Rebeck is alone again until the next ghost comes along, apart from the occasional visits from the scruffy, snarky crow that brings him the stolen food he lives on.
You would think a man hiding out in a mausoleum for 19 years would be popped for trespassing fairly easily. But Yorkchester Cemetery is large, the one new guard on duty could care less that Rebeck is there, and none of the others seems to notice him. When Rebeck is noticed, he's able rather easily to pass himself off as a visitor, or just the kind of lonely, fairly addled aging man who enjoys the solitude of wandering a cemetery. But mostly, he simply seems to go unnoticed. It's as if he's barely there. Rebeck more or less decided nearly two decades ago that he doesn't matter, so he doesn't.
But a new arrival to the cemetery begins to change his outlook. Michael Morgan has died young, at 34. He believes his wife poisoned him, and so does the DA, as she's been indicted for his murder. But did she kill him, or was it suicide, as she insists? Rebeck assures Michael it doesn't exactly matter to him any more. Michael's dead, and eventually he'll fade away, like a distant radio signal, and that will be that. But Michael is stubborn, and insists he'll not forget what is was to be alive, and that he'll strain every day to keep his memories and his connection to the earth strong. With arrival of Laura Durand, another lonely soul taken in an untimely fashion (truck accident), Michael's efforts to keep himself grounded are only doubled. She helps him hold onto his humanity for far longer than ghosts usually manage. There's one scene that foreshadows the growing love these two specters will begin to share that exemplifies Beagle's gift for the quietly moving and profound. Michael and Laura stand at the fence of the cemetery, gazing out upon the city that's lost to them forever. She can still hear the sounds of the city, and even its smells and other textures seem hightened and enhanced to her. But he cannot hear the sounds, and is forgetting all the rest. So he asks her to describe them to him, the way a blind man might ask you to describe a painting, and they sit there for hours, simply drinking in the sensations of an environment they once took for granted, but which is now precious.
A Fine & Private Place shows us ambivalent characters on the cusp between life and death, some who are living but have basically given up on life, and some who have died and are clinging to whatever they can. It is, of course, only once you've lost something irrevocably that you begin to realize how important it was to you all along, even if you never seemed to care at the time.
Fortunately for Rebeck, he may yet have a chance. His meeting Michael and Laura has brought him out of his self-imposed isolation. He begins a tentative friendship with a widow, Mrs. Klapper, who comes to the cemetery often because she isn't yet ready to let go of her husband. She's lonely too, but is far from giving up in the way Rebeck has. He shares his story with her, the first person with whom he's done that who isn't already dead. By all rights Mrs. Klapper should dismiss him as a crazy old coot, but there's something in who he is that she understands, though she can't quite put her finger on it. Rebeck at first is resentful, as he thinks she merely wants to project her memory of her husband onto him. But they begin to forge a closeness neither one of them has felt comfortable forging for a long time.
This is that most difficult kind of book to pull off, in that it's almost entirely plotless. But it draws you into the lives — or half-lives, perhaps — of its four lost and lonely main characters with such compassion and grace that it ends up far more absorbing and moving than most novels with the most intricately structured stories. It's a little slice of life with a garnish of death, and what it reminds us is that nothing lasts and that everything, everything matters. Starting with ourselves.