“He keeps to himself,” is how neighbors are in the habit of ominously describing the titular dropout in Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch. This is until a heart-shaped package arrives in the mail - mistakenly, it turns out - and Mr. Hatch is tempted toward acts of unprecedented conviviality by the possibility that he might just amount to more than meets most people’s eyes.
What’s to love? And who was this mysterious admirer who could look directly into his heart? Did she like aftershave? (Hatch, for one, is hoping it’s a she.) Polka dot ties? The smell of warm brownies in the evening? Pretty soon the old loner is hosting picnics in his backyard and playing “songs he remembered from his boyhood” on the harmonica. Everyone dances.
It’s easy to read this book as a potentially ennobling reminder about doing unto others and all that, but there’s also a world of insight between these covers concerning the sort of tiny social gestures – mine and yours and everyone’s – which have a way of projecting momentously over an otherwise forgettable day.
This, I think, eluded me the first times I read it. Back then I had very young children in tow. People were nice. I took it for granted. More often than not we seemed an irresistible magnet for goodwill. Whole days could turn on invitations. We collected smiles like free passes.
But then the kids went off to school as kids do, laundry still needed anonymously folding, and a twilight full of fussy predictability suddenly did not seem so remote. Here I am already retreating to the same two sandwiches for lunch, same paper, same four mile run, always in a hurry (whether there is any cause for it or not), and I do not often welcome interruptions.
Still sometimes they happen – a brief chat in the street, a shared laugh with a stranger, a wave, a wink, a helping hand - and it’s surprisingly easy to believe I deserve them. Maybe I am really more fascinating than I knew – warmer, smarter, funnier, with better hair. If so, I’ll take it.
And if not? Most of us go looking for reassurances in some pretty unlikely places, when you think about it. In the turning and replacing of calendars. In pills and new diets and mantras, lottery tickets and unopened prayers. Next to this, Mr. Hatch strikes me as downright unromantic. The tear in his eye at the end is well-earned, but it’s also an intriguing little coda to this often underestimated book. The conscious exchanging of one fantasy for another? A glimpse of regressions foreseen? Or the sneaking, appeasing suspicion that this is probably as good as it’s ever going to get?