This is one of Kirk Douglas' most sensitive portrayals so far -- a novel with a valid love story, a touch of the sinister and a bittersweet ending.
Ben is a 70-year-old fitness instructor, recently widowed and temporarily without a home when his house in Flatbush sells more rapidly than expected. His zeal for living makes him appear much younger than he is, and this appeals to Ellen, who is only half his age.
She is the librarian of a large Brooklyn hospital, but her relationship with the hospital's fair-haired boy, a world-renowned heart transplant guru, is not going well. She is looking for a roommate to bolster her finances when she meets Ben at a screening of "Last Tango in Paris." She rents Ben the room, and the two start out as friends.
But soon their relationship becomes passionate, with Ellen taking the lead, and they become lovers. Ben's psychologist daughter is enraged at and jealous of their relationship, which she sees merely as a denial of death on the part of her father and financial manipulation by Ellen.
Critics still marvel at Mr. Douglas' aptitude as an author. His explanation, however, is logical -- he has read thousands of scripts and has acted in dozens of movies, many of them good and some of them classics, and he has acquired a feel for the flow of dialogue, plot and character. His experience is evident in this novel, which is largely played out in dialogue that moves the story ahead at a fast pace.
Mr. Douglas' own philosophy of life is obviously laid on Ben and, in fact, should a motion picture be made of this book, he would most certainly want to play the lead. Even the title was conceived from his own love of the tango, which he shows off at every chance on TV interviews.
When Ben has a severe accident, his daughter, Marion, sees a chance to get her claws back into her father, and she plays on his fear of becoming a burden to Ellen to get him back to her home to recover. In the hospital, Ben sees a reflection of himself and Ellen in a mirror: "The image revolted him: A bent-over scruffy old man was hanging on to a beautiful young woman helping him to the toilet."
Marion wins temporarily, but Ben and Ellen's love is genuine, and circumstances help them find their way back to each other. There is not to be a bland, happy ending, however. Mr. Douglas writes a fine and unanticipated fade-out that does him credit.
Ms. Mills is a writer who lives in Monkton.
Title: "Last Tango in Brooklyn"
Author: Kirk Douglas
Publisher: Warner Books
Length, price: 340 pages, $21.95