REVIEW or retrospective

A story structured in shards

March 8, 2017 | 22 Comments

Making life add up in art

December 28, 2016 | 17 Comments

I was surprised, even knowing Bruce Springsteen’s songs, when I heard him say, promoting his autobiography Born to Run on the radio, that he’s been in therapy since 1983. This was one of the reasons I bought the book. How is that possible for such a beloved man? For rocker so incredibly charismatic and vibrant yet down to earth? For an American success story? What’s the deal, Bruce?

Springsteen answers my question early in Born to Run, revealing the details and circumstances of his exquisitely screwed-up family. And why and how he bore the brunt. But also the curse of depression, and maybe bipolar disorder, that plagues his kin and himself. A figure at once grounded and mythic, Springsteen reveals his behind-the-scenes heroic struggle with emotional baggage and mental illness. That’s his double-whammy, existential and biological. He experienced his father’s rage toward him—and outright contempt—plus he inherited his old man’s disease. Add to that how hard it is just being human, let alone a celebrity, and oh mercy.

The theme of his interior struggle isn’t incidental but, threaded through his massive book, it’s what he’s come to explore and to offer. He’s a good writer—no real surprise—whose prose is conversational and rhythmic.

The matter of Springsteen’s songwriting—the nitty gritty of how he does it—is what some readers will miss. Instead we get his savvy and hyper aware analysis of his work. For instance, I’ve always thought his 1975 breakout album, Born to Run, sounds over-produced, but didn’t expect Springsteen’s confirming verdict on its flawed “bombastic big rock sound.” But, he adds, offering a deeper insight, that’s the dark side of its “beauty, power, and magic.” He’s exquisitely tuned to tradeoffs—he wants it all—and struggles to accept them. Springsteen’s autobiography both reveals his battles with his fragile psyche and explores how he tries in art to make meaning from his life.

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Dirge for the undead

December 1, 2016 | 14 Comments

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy has been often cited to explain the white rage that surfaced and was grotesquely showcased during and in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential campaign. Vance’s bestseller is an intermittently interesting if not ultimately cohesive hybrid: part memoir, part summation of sociological reports. Vance’s own bootstrap exodus from poverty is inspiring and even moving. But he doesn’t explain so much as morally indict “hillbillies”—and the “welfare state” that, in his view, has abetted their desultory-unto-criminal ways.

An asset of Vance’s origin is that he can blast his people, as it were, for being shiftless without risking the accusation of elitism. His bluntness can be refreshing. But his lack of deep historical perspective and good solutions troubled me. Beyond the moral of his own story—get lucky with one or two parental figures and work like hell—Vance offers cursory insight into his former culture. This may stem from his getting his own answer early on, in high school, reading studies of America’s black underclass. He saw a direct parallel. In short, the poor will always be with us, so don’t coddle them.

Yet he shows himself, late in the book, having graduated from Ohio State and Yale Law School, volunteering to do try to help stray kids from Appalachia and its broad diaspora. It’s what worked for him, a few random, happenstance interventions, plus his own herky-jerky yet upwardly moving efforts.

Vance seems most influenced by what he learned early—from his kick-ass Mamaw, from welfare cheats and lazy workers he encountered in jobs, from studies of inner city black folks. In short, he blames “the way our government encouraged social decay through the welfare state.” Nobody, liberal or conservative, wants to carry freeloaders. But where’s the balance between that sense of justified outrage and the resentment that led to the utter horror of England’s old debtors’ prisons? (Which largely stocked the Appalachians initially with the British Isles’ downtrodden.)

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Dusting off. Moving forward.

November 9, 2016 | 11 Comments

When Chris Offutt was ten, growing up in an Appalachian backwater, he asked a librarian for a book on baseball. She gave him J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. It was a revelation, such writing that was “personal, told in an intimate way, about family issues of supreme importance.” He never read another book for juveniles, and he became a writer of short stories, novels, screenplays, and multiple memoirs. Back in May, I read Offutt’s My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir, one of the more interesting books I’ve read this year.

This powerful story concerns his brilliant, driven, awful father. In part, My Father, the Pornographer is a portrait of Appalachian Kentucky. Offutt’s town had a toxic charcoal briquette factory and that was it. He was the smartest kid in school, sometimes beaten by teachers who resented him for that and for his quiet defiance of authority. His Kentuckian father, from a farm in the western part of the state, had picked the tiny company town in eastern Kentucky to be a big-fish insurance salesman. He was that, and increasingly a terrifying tyrant to his children. Especially when he quit his lucrative office work to become a freelance writer. Offutt, as his oldest child, got the job when he died of archiving the man’s ton published and unpublished science fiction, fantasy, and pornography. Literally a ton of novels, stories, and comics. Offutt pere could write a novel in three to seven days.

His secret, parallel 50-year project was the creation of extremely sadistic comics. Sometimes he wrote them for patrons, wealthy collectors. Other than a brief description of these comics, the memoir is not unduly graphic. But it’s sad and disquieting. What Offutt endured from his father and this environment turned him toward literature. But he grew up with the permanent wound of feeling unloved. Part of the book’s brilliance, saturating its deft syntax, content, and structure, is that it escapes self-pity while making you feel for Chris’s experiences and what seems his ongoing burden.

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The case for Hillary

November 2, 2016 | 10 Comments

Puzzled by her aversion toward Hillary Clinton, former Bernie Sanders supporter Sonya Huber accepted an offer to quickly write a short book exploring why. In The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Huber assesses fair and unfair criticisms of Clinton. I found Huber’s look from the Left balanced and interesting—and, more to the point, useful. With her historical overview, Huber clarified my own mixed feelings as a moderate progressive. The bottom line, however, is that we’ll both be voting for Clinton. I’ll be doing so with more confidence after Huber’s inquiry, which convinces me that the false narratives that dog Clinton do cloud our view of her.

I’d forgotten so much that Huber reminds me of, including Bill Clinton’s conservatism as a “New Democrat.” In the wake of Ronald Reagan and under pressure from a new breed of militant conservatives, Bill sought to out-Republican the Right. As Huber puts it,

“This was Jimmy Carter with brass knuckles, a party that had to get tough to rescue the southern white male vote by promising to enforce a series of belt-tightening bootstrap policies that would end up glorifying the Republican ideals of free trade agreements, destroying welfare, and enacting an era of mass incarceration in the name of a War on Drugs.”

Bill appointed Hillary as chair of the Task Force on National Healthcare Reform, making her the public face of the effort. This was an unusual move, and Huber’s research indicates that Hillary was far from the plan’s architect though she was demonized by the GOP and left holding the bag for the initiative’s failure: “It’s amazing, really—the evil power that this narrative has given her. It wasn’t profit interests that derailed healthcare reform: it was a woman.”

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Survivor. Sufferer. Witness.

August 17, 2016 | 15 Comments

People yearn simply to be good. But that’s a hard wish because most people are good but they sure aren’t simple. Take the late Harry Crews (1935–2012), a prolific novelist and nonfiction writer who became infamous for his drinking, brawling, infidelity, and outrageous public behavior. When at last long-successful and revered, Crews consciously strove to alienate others. He wore grungy clothes, drove junker cars, sported a Mohawk hairstyle, and tattooed on his arm alarming words from a poem by E.E. Cummings:

“How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mister Death?”

What kind of man believes himself to be a freak, declares writers freaks, writes solely about freaks and misfits—including, in his journalism, Hollywood celebrities, prostitutes, and dog fighters—and makes being a freakish outsider the core of his personal and aesthetic ethos?

Ted Geltner answers this conundrum in his absorbing Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews. I hadn’t read a literary biography in a long time, and read this one because I’m writing a review of Crews’s classic memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place for River Teeth; A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative in the fall.

My interest also was kindled because I recently wrote a 15-page essay about my time at University of Florida when Harry Crews was there as the famous writing teacher. I’d had a near miss with a bad man when I was 19, working on a farm in Melbourne, and my essay is about that and my writing apprenticeship at UF and how the two connect.

Oh, the appeal and fear Harry Crews held for me. My father having sold our Georgia farm when I was a boy, I’d grown up in a Florida beach town and felt Crews, a true Georgia grit, would smell it on me.

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A dying writer’s memoir

August 10, 2016 | 14 Comments

Paul Kalanithi had his life mapped out: 20 years of medical practice followed by 20 years of writing. Amidst that span, marriage and children, vacations and celebrations—plenty of time to repair the strains in his marriage caused by his tenacious pursuit of medical excellence. Found riddled with cancer late in his surgical residency, already a gifted neurosurgeon at age 36, he soldiered on for a time. While terminal himself, he operated on others.

Finally lacking the endurance for surgery, he concentrated on writing When Breath Becomes Air. In just under two years left to him, he wrote about his cancer treatments, about medicine as a high calling, about his past and ongoing life. He also became a father, nine months before he died, at age 37.

His cancer responded well to initial treatment, but returned. He explains his reaction to seeing those scans, which told him his end was coming fast:

“I was neither angry nor scared. It simply was. It was a fact about the world, like the distance from the sun to the earth. I drove home and told Lucy.”

Few have been more prepared than Kalanithi to make sense of mortality. Growing up in Arizona, the son of a cardiologist, he’d planned to be a writer partly because of how hard his father worked. The price of medicine seemed too high. But then he became a neurosurgeon.

Weaving stories of surgeries he performed or treatments he witnessed with his own experiences as a patient Kalinithi reveals himself not only as intelligent but as deeply empathetic to patients. ­Like the rest of us, as a patient himself he had fine doctors and fair—and one awful resident who almost killed him, it seemed as much from ego and lack of empathy as from inadequate experience. When Breath Becomes Air might be assigned in medical schools to address what seems a vexing nub: always building technical expertise while blending that skill with one’s humanity

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