Millard Salter has decided to commit suicide, and this novel follows him from when he wakes up in the morning and considers which belt to wear and which to use to hang himself, through to late the same night. This odyssey of a day recalls Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses in the struggle between the best-laid plans and uncontrollable reality, and just as it grapples with life’s major questions, it also finds no easy answers.
While a bit grumpy, Millard is hardly depressed, although he is clearly disillusioned with much of the world around him, from his job as the head of the psychiatry department at the fictional St. Dymphna’s Hospital (which just happens to be the patron saint of mental illness), to his lazy son Lysander who still doesn’t have any direction to his life at 43, unlike Millard’s three daughters.
Millard divorced his first wife, Carol, to marry his second, Isabelle, who died of cancer at 71. In response, Millard signed up with Compassionate Endings, an organization that helps the terminally ill commit suicide, and he promptly fell “madly in love with the woman he intended to kill,” Delilah. In fact, today is her last as well, and he will bring her a ‘helium hood’ for her to accomplish the act in the evening. But he has kept from her that he intends to then kill himself at the end of the day. Oddly, his feelings for Delilah make him question whether his decision is the right one more than thoughts of his children or anything else.
The question at the outset is why this healthy person is intent on killing himself slowly fades in the first section, “Dawn to Midday,” for it becomes clear that he is no longer living in a world where people get Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante references—they don’t even understand he’s joking when he says his son’s dogs’ names are ‘Adolf and Benito.’ All of the stores of his childhood are gone, not to mention how the part of the Bronx he grew up in has changed almost beyond recognition.
The next question is whether Millard can even make it to the end of the day as the post office across from where he and his son are eating lunch explodes and later a lynx nearly tears him apart.
But by the time I hit “Evening,” Millard had convinced me, and my main question is why we all don’t discuss whether it wouldn’t be better to go out on our own terms before we succumb to illness or, like the patients Millard has to wrestle with every day, dementia. And yet, Millard continues to waver, particularly as so much of what he thought he would wrap up remains incomplete. In a particularly hilarious moment during “Midday to Nightfall,” Millard goes to the cemetery to see his second wife’s grave and, beside it, the place he imagines he will soon rest, and he discovers someone else has been buried in his spot. And yet, the undercurrent that life can never be wrapped up neatly, is the best part of Millard Salter’s Last Day, and left me ruminating about all that Millard had been through long after the last page.