Tag Archives: Harry Crews

My top 12 books of 2012

From 30 finalists, a dozen memoirs, novels, how-to & history.

Bookstore in Mainex

While reading sixty-something books—those re-read I listed and counted again—I picked thirty favorites. I’ve now winnowed them to my top twelve. They’re listed here in the order I read them.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely by Alethea Black. Black’s short stories are funny and wise. Readable from this collection on line is the fine “The Only Way Out is Through,” about a man trying to help his furious, disturbed son by taking him on a camping trip; the story’s flash forward still thrills me. Another of my favorites is “Someday is Today,” based on the death of Black’s brother in law, in which a young single woman struggles to comfort her widowed sister and tries to help care for the couple’s three young girls. Review/Author Interview.

A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews. Crews depicts his life from age five to ten, the son of destitute sharecroppers in Georgia’s coastal plain during the Great Depression. These are folk right out of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Crews masterfully employs both his child and adult perspectives. Reviewed.

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea. This 2005 Pulitzer finalist is about the suffering and deaths among a group of twenty-six Mexicans who tried to sneak into America through the Arizona desert in May 2001. Urrea, the son of a Mexican father and American mother, is a poet, memoirist, novelist, short story writer, and journalist who is steeped in border culture. He exhaustively researched and fully imagined this tragic incident, producing a powerful and important book that soars lyrically and inhabits shifting points of view. Reviewed.

Such a Life by Lee Martin. These linked memoir essays are deliciously readable and inspiring—see him turn his life into art! And in Ohio, no less. My favorite essay, “Never Thirteen,” is about Martin’s girlfriend and himself when they were thirteen and were about to be split up by his parents’ return from suburban Chicago to their farm in southern Illinois. Martin captures the sweetness in the kids’ relationship, which is set against the fears, suspicions, and flawed lives of the adults around them. He’s a master at moving between himself then and himself now. Review/Author Interview.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Impressively Woolf opens her wondering mind and wandering body to us. This book-length essay is always transparent and never didactic: surprisingly, she embeds most of her inquiry into sexism in scene. Her riff on what-if-Shakespeare-had-a-sister is witty and poignant, and the book peaks in conclusion with a Rilke-worthy mystical vision of the sexes’ ultimate unity.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. A blockbuster bestselling memoir I adored—my favorite memoir of 2012. For me it was a very comfortable book to slip into, and it also inspired me as a writer. I read it completely twice and its prologue about six times. Sales figures indicate I’m not the book’s only admirer—and Oprah even revived her book club with it. Reviewed.

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy. Better late than never I read this masterpiece from 1985, and I’m still reeling from the prose, the story. It’s a bloody western, a historical novel, a revisionist history, an overly dark view of humanity, a master class in narrative technique. You don’t “like” this novel any more than you “like” Everest. You love it or hate it, but you must bow down before its grandeur.

Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg. How to foster and feed and practice the writing mind that makes sentences lies at the heart of this hymn to prose style. Klinkenborg’s method is to gut it out, one sentence at a time. I was stirred by his hard-edged honesty about how hard it is to think. That is, to write. Reviewed. Another fine how-to book among my thirty finalists is Robin Hemley’s A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel.

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love by Kristen Kimball. A compelling story, beautifully written, about a young couple’s first year as full-time farmers. My desire to call attention to this fine memoir may be why it edged out on the top twelve list Philip Roth’s strong 1996 memoir about his father, Patrimony.

Canada by Richard Ford. In my favorite novel of the year, action is seen through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old boy, though technically—and memoiristically—it’s narrated by his adult self. The story is how his middle-class parents committed a crime that wrecked their family and shattered his and his twin sister’s lives; it begins in Montana and moves to Canada, where the boy ends up, alone, living a Dickensian existence. A short third act is told purely from his perspective at age sixty. Reviewed.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich. Like Canada narrated technically by a middle-aged man about and from the viewpoint of his teenage self, this winner of the National Book Award for fiction is set on a high plains Native American reservation. A woman, a tribal record-keeper, is raped and brutally beaten, and her thirteen-year-old son sets out to solve the crime, as does his father, a tribal judge. It’s a detective story, a whodunit with high stakes, as well as a coming-of-age tale, and a portrait of ongoing racial injustice. I also admired Kevin Powers’s celebrated novel of the Iraq War and its aftermath for one soldier, The Yellow Birds, which The New York Times has named one of the top five novels of 2012.

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. Millard depicts the shooting and lingering deathbed agonies of President James Garfield—killed by doctors who didn’t yet believe in European germ theory. Born to dire poverty in Ohio, Garfield was leading a college at age twenty-six; entering the U.S. senate to fill an open seat, he soon rose to the rank of general in the Civil War, and after the war was drafted as a presidential candidate against his will. Millard’s book, a carefully crafted narrative, is still history and harder reading than memoirs or fiction, but worth the effort to feel an America being swept into modernity as its physical frontiers shrink. Garfield was not only smart, he was good to the core, and Millard’s portrait of his noble character and his needless suffering is humbling and inspiring.

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Memories of me & Harry Crews . . .

Harry Crews: June 7, 1935 – March 28, 2012. Here he’s probably holding forth at the University of Florida, probably in the mid- to late-1970s when I was there.

. . . but mostly of me, 1973–1977.

For Tom.

I was a college freshman in 1973, and drove to school from our Florida beach town in a Triumph convertible with my eight-track blaring “Angie” by the Rolling Stones. I went airborne off the railroad tracks near campus.

Brevard Community College, Melbourne branch, was one gray concrete building, two plywood shacks, and a picnic table under some pines. In my speech class my teacher said I sounded country: “You say ‘fur,’ ‘gist’ and ‘git.’ ” We had to give a speech about a classmate, and a blonde girl with brown eyes interviewed me.

“So what are you going to major in?” she asked.

“Business,” I said.

“Why? You said you’re interested in writing.”

“That’s what my family does now,” I muttered.

I changed my major.

I’d never gotten over my father’s sale of our family’s farm in Georgia, and thought my hurt feelings and sense of exile were unique. A teacher wrote on one of my essays about Georgia, “You are a young, budding Truman Capote.” When I showed Dad, he handed the paper back to me without comment, and I realized he knew Capote only as a talk-show freak.

. . .

Although I was attending classes full time and selling clothes twenty hours a week at Belk-Lindsey, I spent every spare moment at “Andy’s” place, a little farm a few miles from campus. Andy was a pure Sicilian from Mississippi, thirty-eight years old; his day job was teaching school and his part-time work was growing orchids. Ducks and geese and guinea hens milled around his lath houses, and exotic breeds of chickens crowed and flapped and cackled in coops crammed everywhere.

Andy, circa 1974

Andy, circa 1974

The orchids supported Andy’s poultry habit; corsages were still popular, and China was decades away from taking over the potted market. You reached his place down a dirt lane overhung with gnarly oak branches, Spanish moss, and grapevines. Duck Valley, as Andy called it, was doomed to be surrounded by condos, but then it was a lost world. The little tin-roofed farmhouse had been built in the 1920s—ancient for central Florida—and its cypress boards were petrified. A breezeway connected it to a barn with stanchions for six cows. In the palmetto woods nearby was a sunken concrete tank, half full of black water, where the homesteaders had dipped cattle to kill ticks.

One day Andy and I were plucking ducks in the breezeway and listening to “Take Me Home, Country Roads”; I was a closet John Denver fan and had given him the tape. Gopher arrived in his dented blue Chevy pickup, his tawny pit bull, Skipper, in the bed. Gopher supplied Andy with hogs, wild razorbacks with long snouts and sharp white tusks. They overran the cattle ranch where Gopher worked. Skipper would sink his teeth in their tender noses and hold them until Gopher could tie them and throw them in his truck. While Andy was fattening the pigs for slaughter, if a chicken flew in their pen they ate it as soon as it landed.

“That a tape?” Gopher asked. He wore baby-blue jeans, a filthy yellow t-shirt, and a white nylon baseball cap with a Rebel battle flag on the crown.

“Yes,” I said. “You got a tape deck?”

“Yeah, but I don’t like it,” he said. “I can’t stand listening to the same songs over and over.”

You’ve got to own more than one tape, I thought. I might have said it, but wanted Gopher to leave. He was just there to moon over Andy’s game chickens.

One day I drove out to Andy’s at lunchtime. By then I had a key for the gate. Usually I came at the end of the day, just before Andy got there, and did his poultry chores. It was peaceful but spooky alone there in the middle of the day. I walked around and looked at the chickens. Andy’s homing pigeons strutted and cooed atop his farmhouse; wind sighed in the eighty-foot Australian pines in the farmyard.

When I returned in the afternoon to feed and water the chickens, I found the chain on the gate cut. Thirteen pens that had held gamecocks were empty.

“Gopher,” Andy said. “That son-of-a-bitch.”

“A chicken thief,” I said. “If I had to picture one, it would be Gopher. He’s going to fight them and get every one killed.”

“He’s already sold them.”

But all I could think was: What would have happened if I’d surprised him? He’d have put a bullet in my head. No, he would have cut my throat. Less noise. Gopher was stupid, not dumb.

. . .

Before I left for the University of Florida, Dad told me, “I don’t think writers go to college.” I majored in journalism, my compromise—you went out and got stories and couldn’t just bullshit like in English—but I mostly wrote poetry.

One day in my class on Faulkner, Welty, and O’Connor, I wrote a lovesick poem, probably thinking of a girl named Jesse back in Satellite Beach:

Lament

I saw a white dove winging by

She made me think of you

Just a city pigeon, really

So call my memory rue

But it was not a bird I saw

Floating by so fast

Only the figure of a girl

Of love I’d hoped would last

At night I worked on an epic poem, “Clouds Like Blue Pancakes,” about a southern backwoodsman who’s coon-hunting one night and pokes out an eye on a dead branch. He stumbles into an old cow dip, breaks a leg, and drowns. The next day a pregnant girl—whom I stole outright from the character Lena Grove in Faulkner’s Light in August—boards a Greyhound bus. She’s carrying the world’s new Messiah, maybe, and she appears without apparent link  to Silas. But some cosmic equation is being worked out. The poem ends, Big changes coming.

Me at University of Florida, 1976

I labored to write a short story about Andy. Mostly it was about how Andy was a throwback to old southern values, how his farm was a time capsule of old Florida. How the air at Duck Valley smelled heavy with sweet citrus blooms all summer. How sunsets out there were operatic: cloudbanks, bruised blue, floated in the yellow sky above a glowing orange band. How the sandy farmyard glowed like a moon-smoothed river in the night.

Harry Crews was the famous writing teacher at University of Florida. I took a class from one of his graduate students and wrote a short story about a boy fishing with his strangely silent father. I never even thought of trying to take a class from Crews. He looked terrifying, and everyone told stories about how he was terrifying. He scared his own students to death. Or so someone said and we repeated. He looked like a man from a nightmare. Like an axe murderer from lover’s lane. Everyone nattered that the short story he’d just published, the one about a kid who has sex with his sister, was not only true, it was autobiographical. He was a real walking southern gothic, our bogeyman. And unlike us, he had material. Lots of it! Because he’d been lucky enough to have been born dirt-poor, with a violent alcoholic stepfather, among rednecks so ignorant they ate dirt.

I just noticed: Harry Crews was my poem’s Silas Tidewater.

Crews shows his tattoo: “How Do You Like Your Blue-Eyed Boy, Mister Death?”

We didn’t know that the wild man had hedged his own bets by getting a master’s in English education at UF. Or that, in reality, Crews had doggedly made himself into an artist. Now, having at last read and reviewed his great memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place I’d wager that his soul was gentle under all his bluster. Then again, he once expressed contempt for timid student writers, of which I certainly was, despite my bluster. Regardless of that, and of our student tales and the ones he told on himself and the ones he wrote about the world’s broken ones, I wish I’d taken a class from him.

Back then, I didn’t even think of myself as southern. After all, I’d been ripped from Georgia where I belonged and had finished growing up in a soulless Florida beach town. I didn’t notice that I hewed to certain southern stereotypes: I drove like a moonshiner, scorned scotch and drank bourbon—Wild Turkey, 101 proof—hunted and fished, listened to southern rock, read southern writers, and kept a rifle and a loaded shotgun under my bed.

Soon I was unhappy with my major of journalism but felt it was too late to switch to English. “How,” I asked a journalism professor, once a foreign correspondent, “do you get people to feel the way you do?” He stared for a moment at me, shook his head, and looked back down at the papers on his desk. Somewhere across campus, that’s what Harry Crews was teaching.

. . .

I finally turned my short story about Andy into an essay, what we’d call creative nonfiction today. Although it utterly lacked any narrative arc, it placed seventh as a profile in a national contest for student journalists. It did have a perfect first line, maybe the best sentence I’ve ever written, full of backstory and movement and gravid with mystery:

The wind had abated, leaving a stillness so complete we could hear the rasp of pigeons’ feet against the tin roof of the farmhouse.

But I left out Gopher.

Like many a young writer, I couldn’t see the life I’d lived and was living—and I wrongly elevated and feared what I was trying to be. I wish I’d seen myself more clearly. I couldn’t see my own material, let alone own it, or see how imagination might have used, extended, and transformed it. How I might have begun to learn the habits of art. I didn’t know that Harry Crews had written three novels and a roomful of stories before he hit his own subject one lonely night and started getting published.

And I never thought about how I’d been spared, how I’d cheated death that day at Andy’s, escaped a dark fate.

After four and a half years of hectic newspaper work in Georgia and Florida I moved north and married and raised children, lost touch with Andy, forgot Gopher, and quit following Harry Crews. I never wrote about that day at Andy’s farm. I never did.

My senior journalism class, Spring 1977, at The Gainesville Sun. That’s me in the middle, at the typewriter between the two computers. Three of us became reporters for The Orlando Sentinel.

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Filed under essay-narrative, fiction, journalism, memoir, MY LIFE, poetry, teaching, education

The leverage of persona in memoir

Childhood tales by Jeannette Walls, Harry Crews & Annie Dillard

A page turner . . .

Joining millions of others, I’ve now read Jeannette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle. Walls wins the prize for modern memoir’s most dysfunctional family, edging out even Frank McCourt. Yet her damaged father inculcated Walls’s belief in herself—he made her feel special even as she wore filthy rags. And her equally neglectful but uniquely disordered mother banned self-pity and enshrined art of all kinds.

Walls became a journalist, focused on celebrity profiles and gossip, before turning to memoir. She hardly muses on her childhood or tries to make overt sense of it beyond its powerful scenic depiction. A plucky girl, she responded to her plight seemingly without much pain or terror or introspection. In the book as in life, she lets shocked witnesses judge her parents.

I felt the strength and the weakness of that approach. The Glass Castle is event-driven, and far on the scenic end of the narrative continuum. Walls bares her Dickensian childhood, long a source of shame to her, she tells us at the outset, but little of her adult soul and almost none of the one she owned as a child. Other than a slim prologue and epilogue (annoyingly labeled acts) that are written from her adult perspective, we see the world only through her less comprehending girlhood eyes.

Francine Prose concludes her long, appreciative review for The New York Times Book Review this way:

At times, the litany of gothic misfortune recalls Harry Crews’s classic memoir, ”A Childhood.” The two books have striking similarities; both, for example, feature the horrific scalding of a child. But to think about Crews’s book is to become aware of those mysterious but instantly recognizable qualities—the sensibility, the tonal range, the lyrical intensity and imaginative vision—that distinguish the artist from the memoirist, qualities that suggest the events themselves aren’t quite so interesting as the voice in which they’re recounted.

”The Glass Castle” falls short of being art, but it’s a very good memoir.

A more typical response is Cindy’s (Cindy Reads) on her old blog Conversations with Famous Writers, who also conducted a Q&A with Walls, and generated 178 comments:

From page one, her vivid descriptions pulled me into her life. It was obvious where all the good reviews stemmed. This book was not simply good—it was phenomenal. The story as fiction would have been amazing, but since this is a memoir it is even more incredible. That someone could have lived as Jeannette did and not only survive, but flourish in her adult life is worthy of all awards and accolades.

This is why The Glass Castle has achieved bestseller status and why so many students love it. It grips kids, who naturally identify with Walls, while thanking their lucky stars that their parents, bad as they are, aren’t that bad. And they can rage and judge when Walls doesn’t (as when three-year-old Jeannette catches herself ablaze while cooking hot dogs, her indifferent mother painting in the next room, and when her father kidnaps her from a hospital’s burn unit).

Francine Prose is a bit vague in her ultimately damning review of The Glass Castle, but I presume that she’s faulting Walls for a weak narrative persona. Prose seems to be making Vivian Gornick’s famous distinction in The Situation and the Story between the events of a life, the mere “situation,” and its “story,” the meaning one has extracted and the truth one has come to tell.

I think that Walls and her legion of pleased readers would say that she embeds meaning in her scenes themselves. And of course Prose seemingly criticizes the very thing that has made The Glass Castle a bestseller, its headlong narrative and lack of musing. I share Prose’s view at least to this extent: I will not feel compelled to reread The Glass Castle to unlock its secrets, whereas I’ve returned several times to Tobias Wolff’s two equally scenic memoirs, This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, which feature a sparingly reflective persona.

The richness of a narrative persona has become important to me, and much of its merit has to do with a writer’s ability to achieve a dual perspective. Increasingly the memoirs I enjoy most somehow convey at once the view of the writer at her desk and that of her younger self experiencing the life being portrayed. Norman Mailer said in Advertisements for Myself that the most powerful leverage in fiction comes from point of view, and I’m starting to believe that’s true also for memoir. As Gornick asked, Who is telling this story? Persona, she said, is “the instrument of illumination.”

Harry Crews’s gothic masterpiece ‘A Childhood’

A savory classic . . .

Since I’d recently reread Gornick’s The Situation and the Story that also extols Harry Crews’s A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, I finally read that, too. I agree with Prose and Gornick that it’s a classic.

But I may be biased because I also lived in south Georgia, on a cattle ranch, until I was almost six. I imprinted on that same landscape, on the vast, flat fields bisected by dark islands of pines and bordered by sluggish creeks, overhung with oaks and magnolias, where alligators swam unseen through the black water.

A Childhood is about Crews’s life from age five to ten in that coastal plain, the son of destitute Georgia sharecroppers during the Great Depression. These are folk right out of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—they’re that formally ignorant and that smart and that graced with love and that blessed with magic amidst the grimness of poverty and alcoholism and domestic abuse.

Crews’s father dies before the son can remember him. An uncle, loving but increasingly violent toward the boy’s mother, helps raise him. As its subtitle implies, the story is also palpably about that farmed-out but untamed region. The book itself is a work of art, beautifully produced by University of Georgia Press and illustrated by gorgeous woodcuts of key moments in the narrative. It’s available new at this time only in hardback, unfortunately, but at least it’s still in print.

Crews achieves a persona remarkable for reflecting from the writer’s present while conveying the world and viewpoint of the five-year-old who gets scalded one day at a hog boiling and the boy who later is incapacitated by polio.

From the very start, Crews plays with persona and memory:

My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew. It was the middle of the night in the Everglades swamp in 1925, when my daddy woke his best friend Cecil out of a deep sleep in a bunkhouse just south of the floating dredge that was slowly chewing its way across the Florida Peninsula from Miami on the Atlantic to Naples on the Gulf of Mexico, opening a route and piling dirt for the highway that would come to be known as the Tamiami Trail. the night was as dark as only a swamp can be dark and they could not see each other there in the bunkhouse. The rhythmic stroke of the dredge’s engine came counterpoint to my daddy’s shaky voice as he told Cecil what was wrong.

. . .

Did what I have set down here as a memory actually happen? Did the two men say what I have recorded, think what I have said they thought? I do not know, nor do I any longer care. My knowledge of my daddy came entirely from stories I have been told about him, stories told me by my mother, by my brother, who was old enough when he died to remember him firsthand, by my other kin people, and by the men and women who knew him while he was alive.

Even as he goes back in time to write from the viewpoint of himself as a child, to tell stories and to recreate his then-existence in dramatized scenes, Crews maintains a dual perspective. We’re aware both of the aging adult at his desk and of the undefended boy experiencing his destitute sharecropper’s life without mediation. Typically Crews eases into a chapter from his present, and slowly the boy takes over, as in the start to Chapter Four:

It has always seemed to me that I was not so much born into this life as I awakened to it. I remember very distinctly the awakening and the morning it happened. It was my first glimpse of myself, and all that I know now—the stories, and everything conjured by them, that I have been writing about thus far—I obviously knew none of then, particularly anything about my real daddy, whom I was not to hear of until I was nearly six years old, not his name, not even that he was my daddy. Of if I did hear of him, I have no memory of it.

I awoke in the middle of the morning in early summer from the place I’d been sleeping in the curving roots of a giant oak tree in front of a large white house. Off to the right, beyond the dirt road, my goats were trailing along in the ditch, grazing in the tough wire grass that grew there. Their constant bleating shook the warm summer air. I always thought of them as my goats although my brother usually took care of them. Before he went to the field that morning to work, he had let them out of the old tobacco barn where they slept at night. At my feet was a white dog whose name was Sam. I looked at the dog and at the house and at the red gown with little pearl-colored buttons I was wearing, and I knew that the gown had been made for me by my Grandma Hazelton and that the dog belonged to me. He went everywhere I went, and he always took precious care of me.

There’s a tension in the book because Crews’s love is so bound up with implied sadness and with traumatic memories of violence and loss. He’s also probing the nature of memory and the growth of consciousness.

Annie Dillard’s impossible task in An American Childhood

A droll appeal to the intellect . . .

As if cleansing my palate of The Glass Castle’s cinematic style, I reread Annie Dillard’s wry reflective memoir An American Childhood, which deposits us amidst her childhood as it unfolds in a loving, prosperous family in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.

One envies Dillard her parents, who are connoisseurs of books, dancing, jazz, and of the structure of jokes. Mom, an art collector, seems a tad overbearing—but droll, at least; Dad, a dreamer, works, when he does, in the family firm, snaps his fingers to Dixieland jazz, and runs off briefly to explore the Mississippi like Mark Twain of Life on the Mississippi.  His other cool hero is Jack Kerouac of On the Road. This gentle Republican reread both swashbuckling writer’s books obsessively. And so did his daddy-loving daughter.

That’s the situation; the real story is about her coming to consciousness and the nature of consciousness as she experienced it from ages ten to eighteen. This impossible subject, a mere subtheme of Harry Crews, is what she hangs her tale on. Dillard repeatedly shows herself becoming aware of herself being aware. She says on her web site that the book is also about parents and science. But what she’s really come to testify about is awareness of awareness as it first dawned upon her and as she experienced it till college age.

She reflects upon this mystery hidden in plain sight early on, on page eleven:

I was just waking up then [at age ten], just barely. Other things were changing. The highly entertaining new baby, Molly, had taken up residence in a former guest room. The great outer world hove into view and began to fill with things that had apparently been there all along: mineralogy, detective work, lepidopterology, ponds and streams, flying, society.

. . .

Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along: is this sad? They wake like sleepwalkers, in full stride; they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning: in medias res, surrounded by familiar people and objects, equipped with a hundred skills. They know the neighborhood, they can read and write English, they are old hands at the commonplace mysteries, and yet they feel themselves to have just stepped off the boat, just converged with their bodies, just flown down from a trance, to lodge in an eerily familiar life already well under way.

I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years, I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again. I woke at intervals until, by that September when father went down the river, the intervals of waking tipped the scales, and I was more often awake than not. I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.

Ah, so it’s a gift and a burden, this consciousness.

Is this sad?

Well, maybe, but like all of Dillard’s work, An American Childhood makes me want to be more awake. We watch her awaken and see her unique sensibility form in her eccentric, loving family. Like Crews’s, this memoir strikes one with the strangeness of true art.

Here’s Dillard on the boys of her youth:

They moved in violent jerks from which we hung back, impressed and appalled, as if from horses slamming the slats of their stalls. This and, as we would have put it, their messy eyelashes. In our heartless, condescending, ignorant way we loved their eyelashes, the fascinating and dreadful way the black hairs curled and tangled. That’s the kind of vitality they had, the boys, that’s the kind of novelty and attraction: their very eyelashes came out amok, and unthinkably original. That we loved, that and their cloddishness, their broad, vaudvillian reactions. They were always doing slow takes. Their breathtaking lack of subtlety in every particular, we thought—and then sometimes a gleam of consciousness in their eyes, as surprising as if you’d caught a complicit wink from a brick.

. . .

But these, the boys who confided in me, were the ones I would love when we were in our teens, and they were, according to my predilection, not the dancing-school boys at all, but other oddball boys. I would give my heart to one oddball boy after another—to older boys, to prep-school boys no one knew, to him who refused to go to college, to him who was a hood, and all of them wonderfully skinny. I loved two such boys deeply, one after the other and for years on end, and forsook everything else in life, and rightly so, to begin learning with them that unplumbed intimacy that is life’s chief joy. I loved them deeply, one after the other, for years on end, I say, and hoped to change their worldly ambitions and save them from the noose. But they stood firm.

And it could be, I think, that only those oddball boys, none of whom has inherited Pittsburgh at all, longed to star in the world of money and urban power; and it could be that the central boys, our boys, who are now running Pittsburgh responsibly, longed to escape. I don’t know. I never knew them well enough to tell.

An American Childhood showed me just how good a writer Annie Dillard is, or was, since she retired after publishing her novel The Maytrees. Not everyone will like this memoir, because not everyone will find it interesting enough to put up with its lack of dramatic events.

Truth be told, it drags for me in places, but I enjoyed it even more the second time. And it’s great for writers to read because in it Dillard does everything: she creates using scene, summary, reflection, and a complex persona—plus she tackles that thorny conceptual issue. The reflective expository passages, as in all those quoted above, show as well how artful exposition can be.

But the book’s strength is its weakness, of course, that deeply interior and intellectual concern—one that demanded a fully developed narrative persona. In his review for The New York Times Book Review, Noel Perrin fingers the risk Dillard took and finds her memoir wanting:

And yet, ”An American Childhood” is not quite as good as it at first promised to be. By choosing to make the book an account of the growth of her mind, an inner rather than an outer narrative, Ms. Dillard almost necessarily forfeited plot. Except at the end, the book does not build; there is no continuous narrative. And though scores of people appear, only two of them are real characters: Annie Dillard herself and, for one wonderful chapter, her mother.

A writer really can’t win. Maybe Francine Prose would have liked An American Childhood better than he, but Dillard drew Perrin, who speaks for regular readers, after all, not just for the literati. Her focus must intrigue you or at least make you wonder if she can pull it off.

To his point about her mother, and exercising my reader’s prerogative here, I realized this time through that I don’t especially like her mother. Not that one has to. Finding myself cooling toward the self-amused woman added to my enjoyment.

Dillard shows how under-utilized this smart, fiercely opinionated and rather bored matron was in the staid suburbs of Pittsburgh. Mrs. Doak was brave, too, taking on titans of industry at dinner parties for their retrograde political views. And she literally weeps for the poor. But she was capable of making innocents the butt of her wit as well, as when she played a cruel practical joke on a stranger in front of his girlfriend by pretending to be the man’s jilted lover.

As in the other two memoirs, An American Childhood pivots on the father. Neither deranged and grandiose like Walls’s, nor a haunting absence like Crews’s, Dillard’s wistful father was the dreamboat of her young life and the authority against whom she would rebel. She opens her book with him and ends each act with him.

He was, probably, the reason she dated all those oddball boys. Lucky them.

A note to teachers about An American Childhood

While The Glass Castle is a boon to educators, real manna from heaven for students writing descriptive essays and learning to analyze motifs and symbols, An American Childhood, based on students’ pathetic, angry one-star reviews on Amazon, shouldn’t be assigned. It concerns childhood but it isn’t for children, not even for high schoolers, save perhaps a rare few in AP classes, nor for most college freshmen except those in honors classes.

Kids need a narrative that’s more strongly event-based. Asking them to grasp this memoir’s message is like telling minnows to notice water’s physical properties, its beauty, or even its existence. Bookish Noel Perrin faulted it for what they’re going to hate it for.

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