Saturday, December 19, 2009


This list represents my ten favorite of the books I read all through the 2000s. Throughout the decade, and most of the 90s too for that matter, I’ve maintained lists of every book I read during each year. To make the selection of my favorite ten of these, I reviewed every year’s list and selected as finalists the ones that have stayed with me in some way over all the intervening time. Thus, my list is based on the lingering influence of the book: each of these titles for me has had a staying power, some quality that made it impossible for me to get the book out of my mind. Each of these has become a milestone book for me in terms of my own literary education. The write-ups that accompany the titles is my attempt to define what it is that made the book stay with me and eventually make its way to this list.

As a logistical note, I only included books that I had read for the first time on this list during this decade. That is why some of the books that have always been my all-time favorites – titles such as
The Grapes of Wrath, Mariette in Ecstasy, Winter’s Tale or Mystery and Manners – did not make the list, even though they would surely be on my all-time list. In several cases I read these books for the second or even third times in the 2000s, but the first time I read them was before the millennial year.

And now, here are my ten favorite books from the 2000s, listed alphabetically by title.

AKENFIELD, Ronald Blythe.
This is the only nonfiction title to appear on this list, and its inclusion is a surprise even to me. This book, which John Updike once called “exquisite”, is not even available in print in this country today, as far as I know. Published in 1969, Akenfield is a kind of oral history of life in a rural village in Suffolk, England, as told by the local schoolteacher, nurse, farmers, doctor, magistrate, and others. Blythe interviewed all these people for their stories and recollections about their lives in the quiet village, and the result is a fascinating portrait of a way of life that seems to be forgotten by time. For me, England is a major source of fascination, both for literary and general reasons. I began to develop an interest in England on my first trip in 2000, deepened it on my honeymoon there in 2002 (where we visited many country villages), and ever since it has remained a common love between my wife and I, and the source of a lot of our favorite things. This book for me captures the stories behind indelible images I discovered on our 2002 journey, things that burned themselves into my mind and seemed to have a million untold stories behind them. The stoic realism of the English people interviewed here - their humility, their wonderfully simple tastes, their strength in the face of changing times and harsh economic realities – has lingered in my mind for years. This book is a treasure that is unfortunately difficult to find – if you see it anywhere used, and have even the slightest interest in English life or history, I recommend you pick it up.

What can I say about the brilliant, incisive writing of Flannery O’Connor that hasn’t already been said?? Including by myself, as O’Connor was the subject of my first published essay!? She has fascinated me since the early 90s, and stands in my mind as perhaps the most towering figure in fiction writing from the United States in the 20th century, even up against people like Faulkner and Steinbeck and Whitman. If my list includes only one woman, the woman I have chosen can easily stand toe-to-toe with anyone on it. She wrote some of the most penetrating, bizarre, hilarious and spiritually potent short stories in the history of the English language. Her vision of the world, summarized in her humorous and fascinating self-description as a “hillbilly Thomist”, was utterly unique among American religious OR literary figures. It gave rise to classic works of short fiction like “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, “Parker’s Back”, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”, and “Good Country People”, among numerous others. Flannery O’Connor knew something about physical and spiritual struggle; she suffered with agonizing pain in her joints for most of her adult life yet wrote so brilliantly in spite of these afflictions. She died at the tragically young age of 39, which is my exact age now. These stories are endless sources of wisdom, comedy and spiritual instruction. They are extraordinary.

I owe my brother John a debt for introducing me to this novel and the great Icelandic writer and Nobel Prize winner, Halldor Laxness. This novel, which many consider Laxness’ masterwork, is about a simple, earnest farmer and his lifelong quest for financial independence and dignity in the face of bitter economic realities and the harshness of the conditions in which he lives. It features one of the most dynamic and strong-willed characters in literature, a man who will simply stop at nothing to maintain his own place in the uncaring world. An epic in length and scope, this novel belongs with the great classics of world literature, books like One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Tin Drum, Midnight’s Children, and others. It weaves in colorful and potent elements of Icelandic lore, violence, punishing climate conditions, poverty and the undying spirit of the human heart.

THE KNOWN WORLD, Edward P. Jones.
A powerful, moving, and beautifully executed novel about black slave owners in Civil War-era Virginia, written by a man who had never published a novel before and for years was an unemployed tax laborer eking out a living in Washington, D.C. Edward P. Jones had been laid off from his job and was living in a small apartment when he wrote this novel. He had only had one other book to his credit, an acclaimed but little-known short story collection called Lost in the City. Yet somehow he managed, without doing any serious research, to produce a compelling and totally believable novel based on a factoid he had picked up along the way that some black people in the south had owned slaves themselves in the 19th century. He used only the power of his extraordinary imagination to concoct the world in which he placed his characters and readers, and you will never read a more convincing historical novel. Jones is a gifted writer who learned to believe in those gifts, and he employed them to extraordinary effect in this powerful story. It won all kinds of awards and acclaim and bagged him a $500,000 MacArthur “Genius” grant, so hopefully this writer will not have to struggle to produce more quality literature.

I cannot think of any other contemporary short story collection I have read in the last decade or even in the last 20 years that matches up with Jim Shepard’s amazing 2007 release, in my estimation. Jim Shepard has to be the most unjustly under-lauded great American writer of his generation. He has produced numerous novels and story collections, but is little known. However, he is widely respected among writers. Almost the opposite of Edward Jones above, he does an extraordinary amount of research and reading as investigative work on a subject before writing his stories, which tends to give almost all of them the feel of a novel, rich with detail, and astonishing in their range. In this collection alone, there is a story about high school football, an adolescent summer camp story, a story of two Russian brothers during the Chernobyl disaster in the 1980s, a story set in ancient Rome, a story about people searching for the yeti in the Arctic Circle, and other far-reaching tales. This is a guy who has written a story told by the bass player from The Who (“Won’t Get Fooled Again”) and another from the perspective of former attorney general John Ashcroft!! Each of the stories in this book was gripping; I could not put the book down. An amazing collection, one of my all-time favorites. One final shot though: this must be the worst titled book of all time. The publishing moguls who made this call suck. Unless the decision was Shepard’s himself, in which case I really don’t get it!

MADAME BOVARY, Gustave Flaubert.
As with Flannery O’Connor, how do I add my own sentiments to all the ink that has already been spilled about this writer and this novel? I can only say that even though I had heard about it over and over before reading it myself in 2007, this book surprised and inspired me afresh. It is a depressing story, but it is one of the most beautifully executed novels in history, wonderfully structured and effortlessly written. Flaubert was responsible for some of the most gorgeous prose in literary history. It could be said that this is the ultimate cautionary tale on the subject of adultery; anyone reading the fate of Emma Bovary would have to think twice about cheating on a spouse. (Note to Tiger Woods, Governor Mark Sandford and so many others: you guys should have read this novel.) Not all of Flaubert’s work rose to this level of achievement. He has a few classic short stories like “A Simple Heart”, but his other novels are kind of all over the place. A Sentimental Education is also a classic, but other books like The Temptation of Saint Anthony are bizarre, enigmatic works. For fans of literature, however, Madame Bovary is a beautiful and nearly flawless work, built like the finest piece of furniture, crafted with care and great skill and attention. It’s like a fiction workshop between two covers. It’s essential.

MOBY-DICK, Herman Melville.
Another novel that doesn’t need much commentary from me, but it certainly belongs on this list. If I was listing these books by order of merit, this one could very well own the top spot. I have only read it once, and that was at the very beginning of the decade. It’s time to read it again, and I plan to in 2010 as a part of my ambitious year-long study of Herman Melville’s canon of American literature. Also of note, this is writer Cormac McCarthy’s (see down on this list) favorite novel of all. Everyone knows the basic premise of this novel, about an obsessed captain of a whaling vessel on a lifelong quest to locate and kill a huge white whale whose name give the novel its title. Captain Ahab is one of the most recognizable characters in literature, and his name has become part of our lexicon as a term to apply to someone obsessed with anything. This novel also features probably one of the most widely known first lines in the history of literature; everyone has heard the sentence “Call me Ishmael”. Furthermore it is probably the most effective metaphor for mankind’s search for God ever put down in a work of fiction. For all of these reasons Moby-Dick deserves its status as one of the greatest novels ever written, and as what many people find to be the closest representation of “the Great American Novel”. The fact that it was not appreciated in the author’s lifetime, reviled by most critics and a commercial failure only adds to the potency of the novel’s historical journey and to Melville’s overall reputation. The fact that he produced anything else after expending so much on such a great work, only to have it be entirely unappreciated while he lived on this earth, is remarkable, but he did, and his late novella Billy Budd is also a classic. Finally, on a personal note, for me this novel has one of the greatest and most satisfying conclusions of any I have read. Finding out how the great struggle between Ahab and Moby-Dick resolves itself is one of the most powerful reading experiences I have ever had. I can’t wait to live through it again.

THE ROAD, Cormac McCarthy.
Cormac McCarthy is one of my literary heroes and, for my money, the greatest living American novelist. He has produced only a handful of novels since his first in 1964, and yet during that time at least two of his novels can be considered modern classics, Suttree and Blood Meridian, the latter of which is also essential reading for anyone interested in a truthful look at the American historical experience – and has a stomach for extreme violence. McCarthy’s novels take man’s quest for meaning and truth to harrowing extremes, but they also take the central tenets of our existence very seriously and unpack them by means of some of the greatest prose in American writing. His Border Trilogy, set in the latter half of the 20th century between New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico itself, is also canonical reading. After completing the trilogy in 1998 with Cities of the Plain, many thought he had exhausted his resources, and for some this was confirmed with his thriller-esque novel No Country for Old Men in 2005. But then The Road appeared the following year, and changed the landscape of his writing and his legacy. Before this extraordinary novel about a man and his son traveling by foot through a devastated, post-apocalypse America arrived, McCarthy’s novels, though critically acclaimed, had never sold more than 5,000 copies in hardcover. But The Road was embraced by critics and readers. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007. All this for a novel that really did deserve its great success. The Road is a very moving story, powerful, frightening, and beautiful. It contains one of my all-time favorite final paragraphs, a single grouping of sentences so fraught with beauty and power that it has stayed in my head ever since. A masterwork from a great American writer who is still very much in command of his powers – and, even better, his career is not yet over.

A TALE OF TWO CITIES, Charles Dickens.
It would be impossible to write this list and not to include a novel by Charles Dickens. His work has unquestionably marked my entire reading decade, from my first trip to London to my most recent reading of Hard Times. As I make my way through his vast canon of work and learn more and more about his life and his craft, I am continually amazed by his prodigious output, prophetic vision, and compassion for humanity. For this list I must choose A Tale of Two Cities because for me it was the doorway through which I entered this extraordinary literary universe. I received it as a gift for my 30th birthday from my partner in crime, Duke Altum. I had been assigned Charles Dickens novels in high school but had always blown them off; by age 30 I was ready to correct that mistake. I enjoyed the book so much that it inspired me to create my annual “Dickensfest” adventure, in which I have vowed to read one of his books a year, every year, for the rest of my life. A Tale of Two Cities is the only Dickens novel partially set in another city, specifically in Paris. It contains all the elements of great fiction: drama, romance, suspense, sacrifice, and redemption. It is also one of the great artist’s more mature and succinct works; it has a precision and wisdom that is not found in his earlier, larger, more bombastic novels. Its opening is one of the most famous passages in the history of literature in English (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….”) and its conclusion is a moving portrayal of the ultimate sacrifice as described in Jesus’ famous words “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” This novel was a scales-from-the-eyes moment in my reading life, a wonderful introduction to a vein of literature that will sustain and enlighten me for the rest of my days, a true milestone in my educational journey as an artist and a writer in my own right.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Without ado, since it has taken me forever to get this list up... here is the list of the ten best books I read this year, meaning, the ten that have had the most impact and I think are most likely to be read, valued and savored by your scribe for a long time to come... (remember, unlike Mutt's lists, mine come in no particular order!)


Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner – In my opinion, this is the capstone of Faulkner’s entire body of work - not only his finest achievement as a novel, but the most representative of his concerns and themes as a whole. As the main character examines his tangled, conflicted family history, one can practically feel Faulkner wrestling the angel of his own ancestral heritage – and the family mansion going up in flames on the plantation at the end is as apt an image as any for his feelings about the Old South and its cultural legacy.

At the Mountains of Madness, H. P. Lovecraft – It’s an incredible shame that Lovecraft seems to be remembered only in genre circles, because as a work of sheer imaginative vision and power, it would be hard to top this bizarre, nightmarish account of a lost culture re-discovered near the South Pole. Lovecraft describes the alien architecture and history in such vivid detail that the reader is almost forced to draw comparisons to Tolkien – though on a smaller scale. Also included in my version of the book was Lovecraft’s helpful and fascinating essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” a must-read for anyone interested in the topic.

Like You’d Understand, Anyway, Jim Shepard – Each year (in my own head, if nowhere else) I choose the finest book of short stories I read, the one that has lingered in my consciousness the longest and is most likely to be read again. Shepard’s breathtakingly diverse and fascinating collection edges out Mark Helprin’s poetic, ethereal Ellis Island to grab the 2009 prize (which last year went to Denis Johnson’s superb Jesus’ Son). Shepard’s work deserves the widest possible audience, and his penetrating and heartbreaking insights into the emotional and spiritual terrain of fraternity can be quite profound and beautiful. The first entry of this collection, "The Zero Meter Diving Team," would be my choice for the best single story I read all year long, it's fascinating and deeply moving.

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright – Probably the most important book I read this year, Wright’s exhaustively researched and riveting account of the evolution of Al Qaeda is required reading for any American who wants to understand, 9 years on, why we’re still at war in places like Afghanistan. His book also describes in fascinating detail how heartbreakingly close we came to exposing the plot before the Day of Terror occurred. No one has worked harder to help us understand the mindset and motivations of the men that attacked us than Wright – and he’s still doing so today with recent pieces in the New Yorker and elsewhere.

The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene – Quick: can anyone come up with a writer that combines the sharp dialogue and brisk pace of the best genre fiction with the spiritual insight of someone like Pascal, more effortlessly and powerfully than Graham Greene? Don’t even try. Greene cornered the market, and no one combines cinematic sensibilities and moral seriousness better. There is something incredibly refreshing and challenging, in this day and age, about a novel whose protagonist takes the mystery of the Eucharist seriously enough that he risks damnation (in his own mind) rather than partake of it hypocritically! The Heart of the Matter delivers as both a fascinating portrait of Britain’s failed colonial experiment in Africa and a searing study of a man’s moral weakness.

Moravagine, Blaise Cendrars – Seems like every year I tend to have a novel on this list that defies categorization… last year it was Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, and this year it’s poet/novelist Blaise Cendrars’ bat-crazy portrait of a psychopathic monster run amok in the 20th century – not coincidentally, by far the bloodiest and most bellicose so far in recorded history. We first meet the title character in an insane asylum, and then follow (in flashback) the adventures all over the world that got him there, from revolutionary Russia to London to the Orinoco in the Amazon – culminating in Europe during WWI “when the entire world was doing a Moravagine.” Murdering and pillaging everywhere he goes, Moravagine seems the perfect nutcase to embody the insanity of modern man.

Shadow Country, Peter Mathiessen – Over 30 years in the writing, Mathiessen’s epic tale of crime and pioneer living in southwest Florida is a fascinating and wide-ranging survey of the history, culture, social life, and even the flora and fauna of the Everglades region. Focusing on the life story of a real historical figure, Ed Watson, the book is divided into three sections (originally published as three separate novels) that tell his tale from different perspectives: first that of his neighbors and community (multiple points of view and voices), second his son trying separate the fact from the fiction of his life, and third, his own (first person narrative). The result is an unusually rich and nuanced portrayal of a life and region that makes you think about our history (especially the treatment of minority races such as Native and African Americans – the “shadow” that looms over our “country”) in a different way.

The Confidence Man, Herman Melville – An even more fascinating portrayal of American history and culture than the one I just described, Melville’s multilayered and oddly comic story of the interactions and conversations between passengers traveling down the Mississippi in the height of the steamboat era is a forgotten masterpiece. Playing with the different meanings of the word “confidence,” Melville presents an America where everyone – businessmen, preachers, soldiers, entertainers, even the disabled! – is trying to pull the wool over everyone else’s eyes, and yet no one seems to know where this “craft” is really heading. Proving once again how far ahead of his time he really was, Melville even turns his own narrative on itself, inviting readers to speculate whether the whole thing is saying anything substantial about its subjects or is simply part of the great big, well, con.

Omeros, Derek Walcott – This one is going to linger in my mind and memory for a long, long time (admittedly, part of the reason for that is that I was reading it while staying at the beach this past summer when I had an accident and broke my leg – and spent many hours with it in the early days afterward when I was cooped up in my bed with very limited movement!). Walcott uses elements of the great Homeric epic poems to create his own epic about his homeland, St. Lucia, and the Caribbean culture in general from the native point of view. But by weaving in strands of British colonial history, Irish culture, the slave trade, African mythology and even Dante (he wrote the poem using the great Florentian’s famous terza rima style), Walcott fashions a magnificent tapestry that goes beyond mere homage to create a work that is visionary, enriching and a joy to read.

Selected Essays, Samuel Johnson – Johnson is of course best known as the subject of perhaps the most famous biography ever written in English (Boswell’s Life of Johnson), but his essays are magnificent pieces of writing - as exceptional for their wonderful language as they are for moral insight. For decades Johnson wrote columns for various English papers, and the resulting 3-4 page musings on topics various and sundry are an incredible wealth of erudition, wit and wisdom. He wrote about life, from the sublime to the ridiculous, but always with a keen eye and incredible turn of phrase. I try to read a few of these a week, just to treat my mind to the mental equivalent of 18-year-old scotch. I’ll finish this entry, and this list, with the final paragraph of a whimsical piece he wrote on (of all things) sleep, which shows how he could take on any subject and make something profound and useful of it:

Sleep has been often mentioned as the image of death[1]; "so like it," says Sir Thomas Brown, "that I dare not trust it without my prayers:" their resemblance is, indeed, apparent and striking; they both, when they seize the body, leave the soul at liberty: and wise is he that remembers of both, that they can be safe and happy only by virtue.

Honorable mentions: The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stephanie Schwam (Ed.); Why I Wake Early (poems), Mary Oliver; Ellis Island and Other Stories, Mark Helprin; Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way, Pope John Paul II; White Teeth, Zadie Smith; Cathedral, Raymond Carver

Thursday, December 03, 2009

On Dickensfest 2009, Best Books and more

Another year, another interesting and successful Dickensfest celebration hosted by Mutt. In case you haven't noticed (and judging by the number of visitors to this page, let alone people who actually read classics anymore, you haven't!!), this is the ninth annual installment in Mutt's ongoing effort to read through and reflect on the collected works of arguably the greatest of all English novelists, and even though I haven't really been playing along at home (much to my shame!), I have enjoyed the "annual non-scholarly essay" he cranks out about it each year. This year's installment, on the novel Hard Times, I thought was particularly interesting and insightful. He draws parallels between the careers of Dickens and Bruce Springsteen, which may sound far-fetched until you read Mutt's convincing arguments. Wasn't Dickens celebrated as the voice for the common man in Britain's industrial age?? Wasn't he always writing about working-class characters who yearn for something more? And what is Bruce primarily known for in terms of the content of his songs and his public persona?

Anyway, it's an interesting comparison, and one that I must say I never thought of. If you missed Mutt's reflections on Hard Times and "the ever-growing behemoth that is Dickensfest," catch it here. Add Hard Times to the growing list of Dickens novels that I hope to catch up with one of these days...

And speaking of Mutt, as usual he's got his list of the Top 10 Books of the Year up before I do... it's right below this post, and it's worth checking out. Mine is, as always, going to be quite a different list, but taken together I think I can say they will represent an eclectic, world-ranging mix of titles. I don't tend to rank mine, but Mutt always does... and his number one choice for this year may come as a surprise, since it comes from a relative newcomer when compared to most of the other writers he selects. It's a book I haven't read but it certainly sounds like an ambitious and original (if not somewhat prophetic!?!) novel.

Finally, this has got to be the literary quote of the week... regarding the auctioning of the great American novelist Cormac McCarthy's legendary 1963 Olivetti typewriter, which he used to type out all of the manuscripts for his books, a book dealer named Glenn Horowitz gushed:

“When I grasped that some of the most complex, almost otherworldly fiction of the postwar era was composed on such a simple, functional, frail-looking machine, it conferred a sort of talismanic quality to Cormac’s typewriter. It’s as if Mount Rushmore was carved with a Swiss Army knife.

Now that's some hyperbole ol' "Chuck D" would really appreciate!!

Stay tuned for Duke Altum's Best Books of 2009 list... coming real soon to these pages!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Mutt Ploughman's Best Books of 2009

A listing of the best books I read this year, with traditional one-sentence commentary (for the most part!), and provided in order of merit.

10. Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart. A hilarious and inventive satire about the oafish son of a Russian mobster who travels from Brooklyn, NY to his home country of Absurdistan in order to clear his father’s name, only to find the former Soviet Republic in utter chaos, battered by war and the garish influences of Western culture.

9. The Ancient Ship, Zhang Wei. Epic novel first published in 1987 chronicles life in a small mill town in rural China over the second half of the 20th century, enduring seismic cultural shifts like Land Reform, the emergence of the Communist Party, and the Cultural Revolution – in scope and overall merit, it belongs on the shelf with better known works such as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Midnight’s Children.

8. The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler. Chandler’s famous private eye, Philip Marlowe, attempts to unknot a confusion around a damaged war veteran, his sultry wife, rakish cops and a Mexican gangster; loaded with classic (and extremely witty) noir dialogue, wry insights, and deft plot manipulations.

7. The Tin Drum, Günter Grass. Sprawling, bizarre, but unforgettable bildungsroman concerning Oskar Matzerath, a dwarfish youth from the city of Danzig on the Polish-German border, whose uncommon proclivities include constant communiqués via a toy drum, a high-pitched singing voice that can shatter glass on demand, and an unusual ability to navigate unscathed through the nightmare of Nazi Germany.

6. Already Dead, Denis Johnson. One of the most unusual and daring novels I’ve read in years, this somewhat unruly but intoxicating “California gothic” is nearly impossible to accurately describe, but it features a junkie, a psychotic killer, a practicing witch, and a barren, desolate California landscape – all of which, in Johnson’s hands, forms a hypnotic chronicle of violence and beauty that seems to take on nothing less than the charting of the tortured human soul.

5. Tori Amos: Piece by Piece, Tori Amos and Ann Powers. Although I’m a big fan of Tori Amos as a musician and an artist in general, I took on this autobiographical work with low expectations, but Amos’ collaboration with and her openness to rock journalist Powers’ wide-ranging exploration of her personal history and creative process yielded what is for me one of the most interesting and instructive portraits of an artist at work that I have ever come across.

4. The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick. The first-ever young adult title to make one of my top ten lists, Brian Selznick’s beautiful and inspired novel has earned its way here; through spectacular black and white drawings and marvelously imaginative storytelling, it wonderfully combines the traditional and graphic novel formats, as well as a rich appreciation of the history of motion pictures, into an engrossing and uplifting story concerning an orphaned boy, an ornate Paris train station, and a mysterious synthetic man.

3. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe. Never having read this world-famous novel before, it is utterly impossible not to include it here despite how well-known it is: the powerful, magnificent story of the Nigerian warrior Okonkwo and his family living in a small village who come into direct conflict with the power and influence of white Christian missionaries, this novel is important for innumerable reasons, and also profoundly impressed me with its brevity and economy of language.

2. Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson. Although Johnson topped my 2008 list (see below) AND appears already on this one, Jesus’ Son is a modern short fiction classic that, much like Things Fall Apart, I had neglected for too long; it is a searing series of very short vignettes concerning a drug-addicted protagonist, and it contains some of the most insightful, penetrating and unsettling language about the darkness within all human beings that the English language has ever born witness to – indispensible.

1. Look at Me, Jennifer Egan. Breaking my own tradition, I need more than one sentence to explain exactly how Jennifer Egan’s second novel found its way to the top of my list this year. I already respected Egan a great deal, having enjoyed her other novels, The Keep (see #8 below) and The Invisible Circus. I admire Egan also for her ferocious literary ambition and the discipline and fortitude it must have required to write her novels. She aims high in all of them. Like her other books, Look at Me takes on too much at once and doesn’t quite bring all of it off – but it’s the fearlessness of the attempt that captivates me. In this novel there is a fashion model whose face has been shattered in a car accident and is surgically repaired; when she recovers and attempts to make a comeback, nobody recognizes her. There is a lonely teenage girl who becomes entranced by a strange older man, leading her into extremely dangerous territory through which she has no capacity to navigate (one astute critic wrote that this portion of the novel was like “watching a second car crash”, but at a much slower speed). There is also a troubled, identity-shifting man who hails from the Middle East who immerses himself into American culture in order to prepare a massive strike against it. Even leaving aside the astounding fact that Egan was writing this in the late 90s and the novel was published only days after 9/11, proving an extraordinary awareness and insight on the part of the novelist, I will say here that there’s really only one reason it’s my favorite book of the year: I simply could not stop reading it. It was engrossing, totally intoxicating, ambitious and mysterious, and I loved the experience. Not everyone would, but it still gets my most enthusiastic recommendation.

2008 List:
10. Night Shift, Stephen King.
9. Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free, V.S. Pritchett.
8. The Keep, Jennifer Egan.
7. Exiles, Ron Hansen.
6. Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI.
5. On Beauty, Zadie Smith.
4. Man in the Dark, Paul Auster.
3. Say You’re One of Them, Uwem Akpan, S.J.
2. An Imaginary Life, David Malouf.
1. Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Mutt Ploughman’s Annual Non-Scholarly Charles Dickens Essay

Some Thoughts on Hard Times, Hard Times, and the Ever-Growing Behemoth that is Dickensfest.

Charles Dickens, or “Chuck D” as I like to call him, wrote the 1854 novel Hard Times as a critique of the effects of the Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century on rural Britain. Bruce Springsteen, New Jersey songwriter and rock music legend, performed a song called “Hard Times (Come Again No More)” on most of the shows in his 2009 tour, as a somewhat backhanded critique on our own society, at least in the pre-Barack Obama era. Turns out the original song was written by Stephen Foster in the same year that Dickens’ novel was published – 1854.

Chuck D and Bruce have a few things in common. Both were born into humble, working-class circumstances with families under financial hardship. Both were graced with an uncommon talent to portray their own times and the people they grew up with in majestic artistic statements – Dickens in his mighty and unforgettable catalogue of large novels; Springsteen with his classic, colorful and penetrating albums such as Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the U.S.A. Both rose out of meager beginnings to become superstars of their time, garnering critical and popular success over decades of creative output. Neither, in spite of all this, ever took their eye off of their origins; neither ever managed to forget their fellow man, no matter how successful they personally became.

How strange that both of these indisputably great artists have brought the phrase “hard times” to my mind this year, in their own ways; how ironic that when both of these men have riffed on the very notion of hard times, neither of them was actually living through anything of the kind. But they remembered what living under those circumstances was like, and they could speak to it legitimately, no matter how much wealth they had accumulated. Success was earned by both artists.

What does that phrase, “hard times” even mean? I am fairly certain that it means something to me in this long year, 2009, that is not particularly the same idea being expressed either in Springsteen’s rendition of the Stephen Foster song or in Chuck D’s novel. Yet it’s one of those phrases that probably means something different to just about everyone coming across it. Is the early 21st century a period of “hard times”? For many of us it probably is. Was the mid-19th century? It seems that way when you read Dickens’ novel. Will tomorrow be even harder? Who can say?

Whatever that phrase may imply to my own ear, which is not the purpose of this reflection, I think in both Dickens’ novel and in Bruce’s recent performances, the use of it seems reflective of a change or a transformation of society that appears to be in progress – something definitely underway, but not yet complete. In a word, it denotes uncertainty.

What happens to a society as it transforms? It seems as though the pains and struggles communities and nations experience as the ages morph from one into another results in casualties, and those casualties are the little people, the masses, the forgotten ones who don’t enact the decisions that cause the transformation in the first place. Those people have always had a champion in Charles Dickens, whose artistic statements on their behalf transcend the gaps between generations. Just as Dickens spoke for the forgotten ones in his novels of the 19th century, so too does he speak for the forgotten ones of the 21st century, because his sharp eye and attentive ear were always fixated on the central humanity of his characters. Today he probably would be called a “populist” and a “liberal”, much like Springsteen, but Dickens expressed his liberalism in a way one can always respect and appreciate, because he made it clear that his true concern was for human beings and not political ones.

Hard Times seems to be one of Dickens’ most overtly political novels, and, as G.K. Chesterton and others have noted, it’s one of his hardest-hitting. It’s also by far the shortest Dickens novel I’ve read so far, my version clocking in at a spry 312 pages. For Dickens, this is basically a short story, or at least that’s how it felt to read it relative to the experience I normally have with Dickensfest! I really enjoyed this novel; I thought it moved at a rapid pace, was plotted smartly if not as intricately as other more famous works, and presented scenes and characters that were as memorable as those encountered in his larger novels. If Dickens went full-bore at his idealistic adversaries in Hard Times, it did not seem to me to be out of step with his general method; one comes to expect that Dickens will point out injustices and travesties, and find interesting and entertaining ways to expose them. That’s half the reason he’s still read as much as he is.

This novel was a mid-career offering, and although it was ostensibly written as a way to increase lagging sales of his journal, Household Words, and is not generally recognized as one of his finest works, it still contains most of the hallmarks of Dickens’ fiction – colorful and vivid descriptions, humorous use of hyperbole, well-named and memorable characters, pitch-perfect dialect, and unexpected twists of plot. You find all of these things in Hard Times, in a smaller space than Dickens normally operated in, and that alone lends the novel merit.

Again, as I’ve observed before, to enter a Dickens novel is to be immersed in the world of mid-19th century Britain. Here in particular, a small village with factories and the hanging smog of industrialization comes vividly and not entirely pleasantly to life in your imagination. A limited but picturesque cast of characters is introduced, and although the moments are fewer because of the novel’s brevity, Dickens still offers glimpses at each face that indicate his own remarkable knowledge of the character, inside and out. Consider this description of a side character in the story, an old woman who serves as a live-in attendant to a blustery and pompous banker:

‘Her eyes, like a couple of lighthouses on an iron-bound coast, might have warned all prudent mariners from that bold rock her Roman nose and the dark and craggy region in its neighborhood, but for the placidity of her manner.’

There is also in a healthy portion Dickens’ penchant for hyperbolic humor, which he used to his advantage in a number of ways, and which, in my opinion, makes his novels more enjoyable. It’s doubtful that anyone would publish a writer who made such use of over-inflated language to describe his or her characters today, but that’s part of what made Charles Dickens who he was. I think of past examples like the crippled old man in either Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend – I’m having trouble remembering which now – who was in a perpetual state of combat with his wife, but was too feeble to do anything more than launch whatever object was closest at hand in her direction every time she opened her mouth to speak. Or the description of David Copperfield in the novel that bears his name, falling in love with the childish Dora, that goes on and on and seems so overblown that you can do nothing but laugh.

In Hard Times, the hot-winded Mr Bounderby, a banker who has risen to some prominence at least within the confines of the small village of Coketown, is so impressed with his own history of rising up from what he describes in great detail as the most humble of origins that he takes absolutely every opportunity available to remind whoever is listening that he was given nothing as a child and had no social connection to anyone of importance. Dickens’ Bounderby has to be the original model for all those characters to follow who would say things like, ‘When I was a child I had to walk to school ten miles both ways without any shoes.’ And each iteration of the general speech seems to draw a bleaker and bleaker description of his past until it’s not possible to see it as the truth.

Or right at the beginning of the novel there is a description of children being ‘educated’ in the local grammar school, which is run by Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, a blowhard whose entire life philosophy is to limit himself only to the ‘facts’. He teaches his charges and raises his two children to appreciate factual information only, and to suppress and eliminate entirely anything having to do with whimsy, entertainment or emotion. Dickens describes him in one early passage, while standing in front of a class of small children, as ‘a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge.’

But for all the artistic flourishes and moments of humor in this satiric portrait of life in an English village, this remains one of Dickens’ most harrowing stories. It spares little in its acidic portrayal of the novel’s villainous characters, from Bounderby and Thomas Gradgrind, to the almost literally devilish James Harthouse, a stranger who attempts to take advantage of Gradgrind’s daughter, to Thomas Gradgrind the younger, a misguided and confused youth whose way of improving his own situation is to commit a crime and pin it on an innocent and uneducated factory worker. It is this last plot strand in which the reader sees how harsh this story really is compared to lighter Dickens works, when the innocent victim of the scheme is made to suffer physically and spiritually in an unexpected ordeal, and yet still finds a way to see through his own disadvantaged life and circumstances to grasp a brighter and more enduring truth. It’s a painful, gut-wrenching sequence.

The longer my experiment known as Dickensfest carries on, the more I seem to look forward to it each year, and I think the reasons for this are simple, especially when considered in the light of the current literary moment. I doubt if I am expert enough to comment on that ‘moment’ with any authority, but it seems very clear to me that there’s no possible way any writer working today could get away with what Dickens seemed to do on a routine basis.

You can’t over-draw your characters; the critics will kill you for being superfluous and ‘showing’ instead of ‘telling’. You can’t wax on politics or moralize in your stories; the reader may take offense, and you should, above all else, not offend the general reader. You can’t write flowery descriptions or lay it on too thick when it comes to writing about things like love, anger, evil, or violence; readers are too sophisticated. Rather, give them the minimum of words and let them draw out any meaning for themselves; or, give them a confusing mish-mash of language and imagery and let them take from it whatever they will, or nothing at all.

Is it possible though that for all the jockeying for originality that goes on, in the mad rush to slice everything away that is not in direct service of the plot or in the service of the idea of writing as clearly and as clinically as possible, we have lost what it means to tell stories, and to have them told to us? Why did so many people love Dickens in his day, and why do so many people still love him now? Because he took our hand, bellowed out some fanciful introductory words in a flourish, and swept us up wholesale into the world of his stories. He went at his stories head over heels, tossed everything he could come up with into them, and carried us along in epic journeys that were funny, violent, bleak, colorful, madcap, sinister, and dramatic all between two covers.

I see my annual plunge into the legendary pool of writing Charles Dickens produced over his remarkable 63 years as a necessary but joyful return to the hearth of the storyteller’s charge and duty. It’s like part literary conference and part dreamlike holiday homecoming. You travel hard through the winds and snows back to the one place where you always have a seat at the grand table, where you can gather there in a huge hall with everyone else since the 19th century who has ever put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard in the attempt to try to tell a story. There you warm your chilled soul before blazing fires, slapping the backs of your brothers in the literary arms with whom you have carried the load, kissing long-lost sisters in the quest to create beautiful works of art, maybe partaking in a few bowls of hearty stew and hoisting a few foaming mugs of mead –

And then all of you, as one eager and rapt collective, sit back with bellies full and minds afire, and devote all attention to the front of the room, where the master takes to his feet, his eyes gleaming, stroking his beard as the words congregate, about to rush forth in one more great story.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Chemical Episode

A Short Story

On the Lam

We returned to our home later that same week. They never did determine what had caused the whole thing in the first place. It had indeed been a chemical plant, and it did explode. The evacuation had been precautionary. They didn’t know exactly what had been released into the air. The newspaper reported that any additional details about the incident would be withheld pending an official investigation. Needless to say that was the last any of us ever heard about it. So it remained a spontaneous incident that happened for no good reason, without any warning at all, and was not repeated.

None of that seemed to matter, though, because what occupied our minds in the Meegan family when we got back home was what had happened to Dad. He had not come back, still.

My mother did what she could to provide reassurance. But her face was flushed and her eyes were puffy most of the time. The last night Dad was at home was the night of the explosion. They had had an intense discussion late, my mother admitted, but she insisted it hadn’t been a knock-down argument. The next day she spoke to him on the phone at work and told him about the evacuation. After that, nothing.

Tommy and I decided to press her for some real information. There had to be more to it than that. On the second night after we came back, a Friday, the four of us sat down for some pizza – myself, Tommy, Katie, and my mother – and while we were eating, Tommy said:

‘You know Mom, Terry and I, we’re 23 years old. And Katie’s big enough too. What’s really going on here?’

My mother didn’t seem surprised. ‘I’ve told you what I know,’ she said calmly. ‘I haven’t heard from him.’

I stepped in. ‘But Mom, you seem pretty sure he’s not lying out there dead somewhere, or injured. If you really thought that you’d be doing more.’

She stared at me. Katie looked down at her slice of pizza. Then she raised her brown eyes, sitting not two feet away from my mother. She was starting to look an awful lot like Mom, but with a different hair color. I suspect she would have ended up looking almost exactly like our mother did. But she only had about four months left to live.

My mom gave up any attempt to consume her food. ‘You’re right, Terry,’ she said. ‘No, I do not think he is dead or hurt. I believe he will come back. But I don’t know where he went, and I don’t know when he will come back. Does that satisfy you?’

‘No,’ I said flatly. ‘Does it satisfy you?’

She said nothing.

‘Is he with somebody else?’ Katie asked.

Mom’s head was shaking before Katie’s question was out of her mouth.

‘Absolutely not,’ she said resolutely.

‘How do you know?’ Tommy asked.

‘Because he told me twenty-seven years ago he wouldn’t do that, and your father holds to his word. That’s how I know.’

‘Look, Mom,’ I said, and I even reached out and lamely patted her hand. ‘We’re sorry, but we thought there was stuff that you weren’t telling us. We thought you were trying to protect us from some unpleasant truth. Especially because you’re not really talking to cops every day or whatever to hunt Dad down. Tommy and I were talking about it, and we just wanted to tell you you don’t have to shield it from us. But now I believe you. You don’t seem to know what’s going on either.’

My mom seemed to think about what I had said for a while. She looked at each one of us. It seemed like she was going to cry, but she didn’t.

Katie took her hand. She had talked about possibly becoming a nurse one day.

Finally my mom spoke again.

‘I said I don’t know where he is, Terry. And that I don’t know when he’s going to return. But I never said I didn’t know what was going on.’

Tommy and I looked across the table at each other. We had this way of talking without actually talking, entirely through our faces. One of the advantages to being twins, I suppose. We’d been doing it since we were little children.

What the hell is that supposed to mean?

—Hell if I know.

—Ask her about it.

—You ask her. You’re the one who made her say it.

—But you started the conversation.

—Somebody had to.

My mother looked up and saw Tommy and I staring at one another.

‘Listen, guys. What’s going on here is that your father has been under immense strain lately, more than he knows how to deal with. His career is not going well. They’re talking about forced retirements. He’s unhappy about some other things. We’ve been on edge with one another. He’s having difficulty seeing things straight. I think he’s lost his way a bit.’

‘Well, that’s all well and good for him,’ Katie said bitterly. ‘But he left you holding the ball.’

Mother and daughter locked eyes. Then she just smiled sardonically.

‘So you think he will come back?’ Tommy asked, to break that up.

‘Yes. He will be back.’

He’ll have some shit to answer to.

—Yeah he will.

‘What do we do next, then?’ Katie asked.

‘We do the one thing none of us is really interested in,’ Mom said. ‘We wait.’

So we waited. But for the next few days it was like living inside a piano. Everyone high-stepping all the time to avoid tweaking the strings, wound up tight as trip wires.

Baby Love

We were seven weeks along. It hadn’t even fully sunk in yet. But it felt a lot different than the first two.

Rebecca had called me at work three weeks before. She told me to come right home. Clueless as always, I asked her, ‘Is everything all right?’

‘I’m not really sure,’ was all she said.

That was not a fun commute home. As soon as I walked in the door, Claire, my younger girl, grabbed me and I almost tripped. She was home from her half day at kindergarten. Rebecca was seated in our one decent recliner. Her eyes looked like a harbor on a foggy morning. I knelt down next to her.

‘I’m pregnant,’ she said, and started to cry.

The doctor told us things were fine, and we were due around Christmas. He lectured Rebecca imperiously about birth control. I was not in the room at the time. I had gone out to the lobby to stop my spinning head from knocking everything off the walls.

The timing was almost hilariously awkward. It felt like we were in the absolute worst position to have a third baby. But it wasn’t as though I could transfer the blame. And I didn’t want to. Part of me was thrilled. Right off the bat, I’ll just say it, I knew he was my first son. You can ask me how and I could never tell you, but I knew it. Rebecca agreed. She told me she could just feel it. I believed her because, somehow, I could too.

But in weaker moments, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking that the pregnancy was some kind of cosmic joke. Work was always stressful and we were way behind on our bills. It felt a little bit like God was enjoying a bit of a laugh. ‘You thought things were stressful before,’ He said, ‘let me toss this into the mix.’

I know how terrible that sounds – and believe me, today I regret my selfishness and lack of faith. I paid for it.

One Thursday night at the end of her seventh week my wife started complaining that she didn’t feel well. She made a few trips to the bathroom and spent a lot of time there. I thought she was being sick, but there was no noise. She came out subdued. She said she was feeling off. The next day she started bleeding, but not in great amounts. She felt nausea and lethargy. ‘I think something is going wrong,’ she told me on the phone. I stared at my cubicle walls, as the correct words might be posted there with the other nonsense. ‘I’m going to try to get in to see the doctor,’ she said. I offered to go with her.

It was a Friday. The doctor was unable to see her at all until the following Monday. She was told that if she had major bleeding before then we should go to the ER. Then the doctor herself called on Friday night. She asked a lot of questions.

When Rebecca hung up she said, ‘The doctor says this could be a lot of things. No need to over-react, she said. The fact that I’m not bleeding a ton is a good thing.’

‘But you are bleeding off and on?’ I asked.

Rebecca nodded, and looked at me. Her eyes had something in them I couldn’t put a name to.
We went through the entire weekend trying not to think about what was going on, yet we also had a thorough discussion about names. Our girls took care of most of the rest of the time. When you have small kids and you need distractions, it’s not too hard to find them. Rebecca made more visits to the bathroom. When she came out I would interrogate her on how she felt. She said, ‘About the same.’ Any blood? ‘Some,’ she said, but she didn’t quite look at me.

I never really believed it. I know I didn’t, because of my reaction later. My wife had been trying to let me know.

We found ourselves in the office the following Monday. The technician smeared that clear gel stuff on my wife’s stomach. I stood in the far corner while the ultrasound was in progress. Where the hell is the father supposed to stand? There was too much machinery, plus the technician herself, surrounding Rebecca’s head. So you end up standing in the corner somewhere in full view of the business end. I stared at the gray shadows on the computer screen. The technician said something to my wife that I didn’t hear while mopping off her stomach. Rebecca nodded and sat up.

‘What?’ I said. ‘What happened?’

The technician took us down a hallway and into a vacant room. ‘The doctor will be down in a little while,’ she said. ‘We’ll give the two of you a little time though.’ She shut the door.

That’s how I finally found out. It never existed as a legitimate possibility to me before that moment. As soon as I looked at Rebecca in that cold and barren room, however, I understood that she had been telling me, or trying to, since the previous Friday.

What happened to me next never happened again after that morning. I grabbed my wife and I bawled, exactly the way my daughter Claire does when you punish her. Rebecca cried too, but more quietly, knowledgeably. I blubbered like an idiot. But I wasn’t thinking about that. That was my son. That was my only son.

I pushed back from Rebecca, coughing. I bent at the waist with both hands on my knees and made some groaning noises. I guess it’s going to sound ridiculous now, on paper, but it sure didn’t feel that way. I looked straight up at the tile ceiling, not seeing the tiles or the ceiling or anything, and I stammered, loudly, ‘We’ll see you when we get there!’

A Chemical Episode

My father called it ‘a chemical episode’. That’s how the doctor had put it, and to him, naturally, the phrase made sense. Having studied chemicals in the brain and brain function in general for much of his life, he knew the terms. He must have had an idea of what was going on within his own head in a way that most would not. And yet, the fearful mystery of it is, even Dad with all his stockpiled information was powerless to counteract it.

He returned Sunday morning. We got back from Mass and there he was, sitting on the front porch of our house. It must have taken a lot for my mother not to whack him in the head, or scream, or something I haven’t thought of. As for myself, Tommy, and Katie, we were all just relieved to see him. To us the nightmare was over. For my Mom – and for him – it was hard to tell if it was ending, just beginning, or in progress.

Somehow, I think in a more or less dignified manner, my parents detached themselves and went into my Dad’s study to talk things over. There they argued. Tommy and I could hear them duking it out even upstairs. You couldn’t blame my mother for uncorking. It never got too bad, however. I think there was general acknowledgment of a problem, something that would require the involvement of another, objective party. I doubt this had ever taken place before. Tommy and I sat in the same room quietly, listening I guess; we didn’t even make a show of small talk or of doing some other mundane activity.

Katie had to work that afternoon, in the same library my mother had worked at once. Katie had been there since her freshman year of high school. Tommy and I putzed around the house for much of the day, and tried to interest ourselves in a Yankee game on TV. My mother went out to ‘run errands’, or something. I don’t really remember what Dad was doing, but after a long time, in the late afternoon, he wandered into the family room where Tommy and I were. He carried three Budweisers with him. He distributed them, sat down, and watched the last three innings with us.

That was a strange and not very comfortable afternoon. We knew he wasn’t going to say much. At least, not right away. And if he did, it wouldn’t be a big breakdown or an outpouring of contrition. Not from our Dad. There were times when he could get emotional, but he had to be very tired, or a little drunk – or a lot drunk – and that rarely happened. My father was a man of science. Things had explanations. He wouldn’t talk a lot about it until he had more facts. It went against his training and his instincts.

Sure enough, at dinner that night, he told the family he’d experienced some kind of mental event, a lapse of reason. He was going to see a doctor the next day to address it. ‘It’s something that may have become a problem,’ he said, with understatement. ‘I’ve got to find out what it will take to fix it. So that’s all I’ll say about it right now.’

Three nights later, however, my parents called a family meeting. It was held after dinner in our ‘formal’ living room, which meant the room we spent the least time in and the furniture was not quite as trashed as the rest of the house. My Dad sat in a large leather recliner. When we were younger we had called it ‘the throne’ or ‘Dad’s chair’. You couldn’t sit on it. It was better if you didn’t even look at it. It seemed appropriate for him to post himself there. My mother, looking stalwart as ever, but not saying much – she hadn’t had a whole lot to say since his return, really – sat on the arm. Tommy, Katie, and I all sat on the long sectional.

‘There are two problems at issue here,’ said my father without preamble. ‘One boils down to an imbalance of chemicals in my brain. The common term for this is ‘depression’. I seem to be developing a greater susceptibility to it as I age. My neurologist isn’t sure why it has increased over time. There isn’t anybody that could explain it, truthfully. What happens is that substances called neurotransmitters in the brain – serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine – become disproportionate. It has a great effect on a person’s mood and judgment.

‘I didn’t see it coming on, but it’s really not surprising that this was possible. My father almost certainly suffered from it before he died. And you remember my sister Josephine. She suffered from it for most of her adult life. Now it seems I am experiencing it, too. Stress also has a lot to do with what happened. But none of these are a complete explanation, nor are they the only causes.’

He waited, gathering his thoughts to say more. Maybe something he found difficult.

The thing is, we did not remember Josephine. Or Aunt Josephine, I suppose. We didn’t really know much about her. We had never spent time with her. I couldn’t even picture her face, and I still can’t. She had lived back in Ohio, never left, and she died when Tommy and I were teenagers. Nobody ever talked about her. She’d been married to an abusive husband, a guy that had traumatized her physically and mentally, evidently. When she died, all we knew was that she was not with this guy any longer, was living in some sort of home, and she had passed from some kind of cardiac event. Was that even true? We would have been the last to know.

Bringing up Josephine had always been good for one thing in our house: total silence. Thus, what my Dad said next was somewhat ironic.

‘The other problem here is communication. I’m not good at being open about what is going on with me or how I am feeling. I bottle it up. I must be the most inexpressive person of Irish descent in the world. But my mother was German, you know. Anyway, I’ve been feeling off for a while. But I didn’t tell your mother everything about it, and I sure didn’t tell you guys. Actually the one person who came closest to getting it out of me was Kevin. He said to me, about ten days ago, “Something is wrong with you.” Kevin’s smart. He was exactly right.’

Normally I would have gotten pissed off the reference to how together Kevin’s shit was. But this was not the time.

‘But,’ Dad continued, ‘I did not think that either of these struggles I just talked about would cause me to do what I did over the last several days. I wish I had a good way to describe the things happening in my brain …. how it was even possible for me to just up and leave and stay elsewhere and not to even feel as though I were the one making those decisions. But if I could do that, I’m not sure I would want to. I don’t want you, my children, to experience this. I don’t want you to know what it is. Yet at the same time, I cannot say for sure that one day one or more of you won’t. Because of heredity. And that’s another thing I will have to live with.’

At this point he looked down. My mother put her hand on his shoulder. I looked at Tommy. We didn’t know what to expect right then. It could have been tears, it could have been another rant, it could have been some kind of joke. Katie was looking at my father with a compassionate expression. For her, there were tears.

Dad looked up again. His face impassive.

‘One other thing,’ he said. ‘You may think I’m fine now, I look fine, this thing is over. It isn’t. I know enough about it. Everything went out of whack up here’ – he pointed to his forehead – ‘and I don’t know why. But a lot of things that I suspect contributed to it are still happening. And I don’t know when or if it will occur again.

‘The first thing I really wanted to say to you kids is that I apologize. To all of you. I’d like to ask for your forgiveness.’

He waited. We all nodded. He looked at my mother, who smiled at him wearily.

‘The second thing is that I know that what I need right now is to get help. That’s what I’m doing. And I will keep doing it until I get through this.’

Evacuation Part II

He lived up to that promise. That’s why I had forgotten the episode. My Dad never again acted the way he had after the explosion.

He died seven weeks ago. He had Alzheimer’s Disease, the very condition had worked so hard to find a treatment for. For the last five years, he had a very poor appetite, didn’t leave the house very much, suffered bouts of dementia, and a host of other ailments too numerous to catalog. He forgot all of his grandkids’ names. He asked for Katie frequently. It wasn’t terribly surprising that he would die. But it still shocked the hell out of Tommy, Kevin and I when it happened. There are only four of us left in this family.

Now I know exactly what my father felt. Everything I have written about here has brought me to this moment. I am seated in a nondescript hotel room in a tiny kitchenette. It’s not even a mile from my house. Why I am here I can’t even say. I guess it was his death, of all things, that triggered it. But it wasn’t only that, of course. Things have a way of stacking up. The money. Longer hours. My dead sister. My lost son. And then Dad.

I started to think about it all over these last few days, trying to discover out what I had done. And it finally dawned on me last night. This is exactly what happened to my old man. And I responded to it in basically the exact same way. That’s what really shakes me about this – the understanding that it wasn’t even really a decision I made. It was something that happened. An event. An episode.

Friday night, I got off work. My wife was out with our girls at a birthday party, and they were going to come home late. Christmas is not far off. Our son would have been due soon. My wife plans as much stuff as possible to keep her occupied, distracted, out of our house.

I was driving home, staring into space. A bank called my cell. I ignored it. Day had already vanished into dusk. I drove right past my own house, which was darkened. I kept going. I assumed I was circling the block, allowing the song I was listening to to finish. But I left the development altogether. I turned and headed towards the highway. Right before the highway picks up, a brand new Courtyard Hotel has sprung up very recently. I pulled in. I had never even really looked at it before.

I sat in the car with the motor off, watching the lobby entrance. My instinct prompted me to ask myself what the hell I thought I was doing. But something wasn’t working. I didn’t want to ask questions. All I wanted to do was sit somewhere innocuous and quiet and sleep for a while. Maybe write some things down. I went inside and came up here and sat down. They had this nifty little notebook just waiting for me. And I’ve been here, more or less, ever since.

It’s Tuesday night now, very late. Of course, now that I remember what happened to my Dad, and I know what has happened to me, I have to go back. I must return home and attempt to explain to my wife what I have done and what I am going to do about fixing it. I cannot imagine how she will react.

But first, now, after writing this down, I will try to get some sleep. It hasn’t been coming the way I hoped it would. I have spent many hours here staring at these dreadful walls, these ridiculous paintings. Or the TV. I’d like to put down that I have had wild fever dreams, one or more epiphanies, extraordinary visions. That I’ve been visited, one by one, by all the people I’ve been close to who are now dead. First Mutt. Then Katie came by. Then my father stopped in. I even got to hold my unknown son for a while. They all, even the fetus, wanted me to know it was okay. I could go back home. All would be forgiven.

None of that has happened. I stare up at the ceiling. I find myself imagining something strange. I don’t think of all those other dead. I think instead of my own death. And I think of water. Gallons of water, lakes, a huge ocean.

I picture myself as the subject of a burial at sea. No Mass, no music, no eulogies, no grave. They wrap my body in whatever laundry is available on the ship and slide it off the quarterdeck. I visualize it, my body, with the soul removed to God knows where, drifting down, a big stone tangled in the cloth. It descends for a long time, in utter soundlessness, until it lands with a small puff on the bottom of the sea. Where, having no knowledge of the light let alone the inclination to move towards it, pre-cognitive creatures converge and scuffle blindly over what remains.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Never Say Die

OK I have to admit that that title is an inside joke between Mutt and I... I won't bother to explain it. But it's a good lead-in to some comments I have about Mutt's last post, "Die Trying," which you need to read if you haven't already. (Also, I like way it actually contradicts the title of the very post it aims to draw your attention to, with Spinal Tap-level absurdity, which also makes sense given one of the films he discusses!)

As anyone who's been reading these pages already knows, Mutt has been doing a yeoman's job keeping this thing going while I've just been too busy during the last few months to contribute... surgery for one of my children, and a personal injury for myself, certainly did wreak havoc on my schedule! But both my daughter and I are all healed up (more or less), I am happy to report. I'm going to try my hardest to keep up with Mutt's myriad posts...

The reviews he has posted up recently for Jim Sheridan's Get Rich or Die Tryin' and Sacha Gervasi's "rockumentary" Anvil!: The Story of Anvil really are worth a read. Since I haven't seen the first of those, I'll focus my comments on the second: I think Mutt makes a point about Gervasi's film that's an important one, and not one you're going to get from many - if any! - other film reviews you can read out there online or wherever. Yes, the movie is a celebration of friendship and perseverance, and yes, it is an inspirational real-life story about never giving up on your dream. But it's also, when you really think about it, a movie about gratitude.

Perhaps this is best summed up by "Lips" Kudlow himself, lead guitarist and front man for Anvil, in one of the film's many memorable moments, when he is driving and just musing for the camera about the work he and his band have just put in to record their 13th album (Tap-ishly titled This is Thirteen). He first reflects on their disastrous European tour and says optimistically "Well, at least there was a tour for everything to go wrong on!" And you can tell by the look on his face that he's not just being blind or "in denial;" you can tell he actually means it. The weariness evident on his face shows that it wasn't all fun and games (as if the footage shot by Gervasi along the way hadn't enough!), and that the disappointment Kudlow has experienced has taken its toll on him. But he somehow manages to find a ray of light in the experience anyway.

And then, as Mutt pointed out, he talks with evident pride about the work they've done on the new album, and how fortunate he is to be in a position to record at all. "I'm grateful," he concludes, with a sincerity that cannot be denied. I like how Mutt turned thaat question around on us, the audience: how many of us are grateful for the gifts we have been given? How many have the courage (and it does require courage, oftentimes) to use them, to offer our ideas and expressions to a world that will more than likely reject them because they're not deemed worthy of consumption by the popular masses?

That's the really remarkable thing about this film, that both Mutt and many others have stated - in the beginning of the movie, you're laughing at these guys, their appearance and music and obvious enthusiasm for something that seems, frankly, sort of childish. But as it goes on, and you get to know the people a little bit, deeper and far more admirable character traits emerge. These guys have loyalty. They have passion. They have courage. They have vision. They are willing to accept the risk of failure. They refuse to give up their right to express themselves as they see fit.

But most of all, they have gratitude. They recognize that it's a gift to be able to express themselves in the form of music. They want to revel in the joy of that. And if they can get paid for it, so much the better. But clearly, as thirty-plus years of hard struggle has proven, that's not their primary motivation. If it were, they would have flamed out a long, long time ago.

If you can't find something to admire in that, you ought to be checking your pulse. And that's why by the time Anvil! ends, you're loving every second of the success that they find - however fleeting, however irrelevant as per the shifting standards of popular culture. If movie theaters were bars, there would be raised mugs and shot glasses going up (and down) all over the place in tribute to Kudlow, Reiner and all the other struggling artists out there who manage to find, in their relentless pursuit of perfection in their craft for its own sake, something to be thankful for.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Chemical Episode

A Short Story

The Explosion

The only other time I have been forced to evacuate was that one night, almost twenty years ago now, when the chemical plant exploded. This happened over the summer, two years after college but before we left home for good. My twin brother and I were both back in River Heights with our parents and our younger sister, Katie, who is now dead. My older brother Kevin was living in Boston with his fiancée.

It was a sweltering night, thick with the kind of weighted silence that covers the earth after a scorcher, a shroud of exhaustion. All when I was growing up in that cushy suburb, our house never had air conditioning. The walls practically melted right off the beams. We jacked open the windows at night, accomplishing nothing. A battalion of sickly electric fans of nearly every variety, some older than me, was deployed strategically throughout the house.

I lay in a pool of sweat and moonlight, finally asleep, my body strung out from working all day and then cutting our grass. Tommy and I had flipped a coin. I lost. Suddenly a tremendous report thundered off of the roof of the sky, a single blast that was like the sound a battleship’s heavy guns makes in films. The concussion literally shook the house. It was this that woke me up. Some part of my consciousness heard the blast, but my body responded as if physically shaken. Woozy with fatigue, smelling ripe, I lifted my head up, then propped myself onto my elbows and stared out the open window.

At that moment the door to my room creaked open and my brother Tommy walked in, dressed only in a pair of underpants. His hair was sticking straight up and he had one eye closed. ‘What the hell was that?’ he asked, as if I could supply the answer.

‘Don’t ask me.’

Tommy shuffled across the frayed carpet to the window and peered out. ‘It sounded pretty close by. Did you hear it? Some kind of explosion or something.’

‘Hell yeah I heard it,’ I replied. ‘You could feel it, too.’

‘That’s the part that’s freaking me out.’

We both fell silent for a moment.

‘If this were about ten or twelve years ago, I’d say it was the Russkies, finally giving us what was coming,’ said Tommy.

‘It ain’t the Russkies,’ I said. ‘They waited too long, and now they got nothing to hit us with.’

A Cumulative Effect

I didn’t know I was headed for trouble until I was already in the middle of it. There aren’t many warning signs – at least, not if you’re not trained to see them. It doesn’t follow discernable patterns, and if it attacks, it does so without provocation. No wonder doctors and scientists are still essentially baffled by these matters.

Looking at my life from where I sit – I am 39 years old now – I’ve actually achieved many of the things I wanted to when I was younger. Sure, I’d like to be rich and have greater peace of mind. But I really am fortunate. The one thing that I’ve always wanted – aside from my literary aspirations – was to have my own family, and God has given me an absolutely beautiful one. My wife Rebecca and I were married in 2000, and we have two gorgeous daughters: Elizabeth, who is nine already, and Claire, who is five. The three of them are easily the most important things in my life. It might not seem that way once I finishing telling this story, but that doesn’t change the fact.

Tommy is married too, by the way. He has four children. He lives in Emmittsburg, Maryland, and works in the Marketing department at the College of Mount Saint Mary’s. I work in the sales department for a financial services firm, writing copy for various documents. Thus, he makes less money than I do, but he’s a better provider. He’s a more conscientious father than I am, and a natural member of a community as well. I’ve always believed that Tommy’s had a little bit of an edge over me when it comes to sociability. Whenever I’m in his town I meet a lot of people who tell me how terrific he is. I wouldn’t argue the point.

As I said before, though, I think I’ve done well enough for myself, especially in terms of what’s important. And I do have my gifts. I’m a better writer than Tommy is. That may not sound like much, but to me it makes up for a lot. Some might say that Tommy has more personality. But a writer rationalizes that he has a more dynamic inner life than your average schlub off the street. It’s bullshit, but it makes me feel better. I guess what I am trying to say is that I know who I am, at least relative to my twin brother. I can live with the differences.

Our lives were nearly the exact same story until just after we got out of college. Then two tragedies occurred. The ripples from these two events prodded us in different directions. Our lives began to resemble one another less. Then we married utterly different women, at completely separate times. Twins must eventually drift apart, in some ways, while maintaining an inviolable bond in others.

For me, however, after the second tragedy – the death of my sister Katie by vehicular manslaughter – more bad things happened. Not all at once. Every two or three years. But they began to accumulate. The collective weight pressed down on me harder and harder without my even knowing it. Until I just gave way. No one saw it coming. Least of all me.

It wasn’t until the third night of the current evacuation that I remembered. There had only been one incident in my entire life that pointed towards what is happening now. And it had started with the chemical explosion, on that late summer night nearly twenty years ago.

After the Explosion

My mother seemed the most rattled the morning after. I didn’t understand why at the time. Katie was still asleep. I came down the stairs, seeking my father. She told me without making eye contact that he had left for work already. That was surprising since it was not yet seven o’clock. But I didn’t dwell on it too much because my mind was occupied with the strange incident in the middle of the night.

Tommy came stumbling down a few minutes later and we had some coffee. Seeing him all bushwhacked reminded me of the old times when we used to drag ourselves downstairs to go deliver The Newark Star-Ledger. Damn, I thought. Nothing changes.

My mother sat at the table with us. She seemed distracted but she wouldn’t talk about it. So we sat there for a while speculating on what had happened the night before. Nobody could even begin to determine what it had been. All we knew was that something had blown up. We wondered aloud whether it was somebody’s house, but we had seen no smoke and heard no fire engines, and it seemed unlikely that a residential home in the middle of a suburb would suddenly pop off like a Roman Candle for no apparent reason.

Another possibility seemed more likely. About a half mile down Arbor Street from where we lived, near the center of River Heights, the housing developments came to an abrupt end, right about where a set of railroad tracks cut across the town. Between all the houses and the downtown area there was a handful of warehouses and nondescript office buildings. A used car lot near there had been abandoned since I was a little kid. There was a UPS facility somewhere in there. It was a dirty, unappealing part of town. We used to joke that it was the Communist District because of the ugly buildings.

There was one small side street running perpendicular to Arbor that I had never once traveled down. It was called Industrial Road. It was probably about 1,000 feet long by the looks of it. From Arbor Street you could see curious smokestacks and cylindrical tanks full of God-knew-what, stuff that probably ended up in McDonald’s Happy Meals or something like that. Foul-colored smog chugged out from hidden orifices at odd times. This had always been a mysterious place to me, Industrial Road, because I never saw anybody actually coming or going down that street.

The only person I ever knew that actually worked there was my dead friend Mutt Ploughman. He had worked for UPS for a while.

I thought about Industrial Road while were sitting around the table that morning, with the sun struggling to hurdle the huge trees in our backyard. We all agreed that the explosion had to have occurred in that area. Wasn’t there some kind of chemical plant or something down there? Tommy wondered. My mother said she thought that there was.

What else could it have been? But it was so bizarre. Everything quiet, dead of night, all these washed-out people exhausted from carrying out the same old suburban routines lying asleep in their beds, and down there in the industrial part of town where nobody recognizes anything, something goes awry. All that matter bubbling along, or whatever it was that went on there day in and day out, week after week, until a moment arrives when something happens – nobody knows what – and the whole thing just kind of boils over. Ka-boom.

That night my father did not come home from work.

Experience with Death

The first of the tragedies was the death of our old friend Mutt Ploughman, the first summer after we graduated from college. We’d known Mutt since we were seven years old. He’d lived four houses down from our own up until the day he died. That day came in 1995. I don’t feel like I want to rehash all of the specifics. I’ve told a thousand different people the whole story about three times each.

He had been in the backseat of a car that another guy was driving too fast down a rain-slicked street in the middle of our suburb. Most of us didn’t have jobs yet and had nothing to do except tool around and look for a place to eat. Maybe the only reason Mutt ended up inside a chassis twisted around a tree trunk like a paper clip bent around a #2 pencil was because driving fast was the only way to milk a cheap thrill out of existence.

The craziest thing about that experience – the part that still festers inside of me somewhere like a hole in a tissue wall – was that Mutt had been the only one of us that did have a plan for the future. He could be such an asshole sometimes, so ridiculous and petty and full of himself for no reason whatsoever except to compensate for his own numerous liabilities. Half the time I knew him I did everything but wish him dead. But Mutt Ploughman was the hardest working friend and peer I had ever known. He had spent his entire 21 years of existence preparing to drag himself out of a hole he hadn’t dug, and when he finally got his head up out of the ground it was as if somebody came by in a huge truck and rolled right over it. For those of us left behind to figure that out, it was a real blow to our sense of equilibrium, a foot to the balls right as we were walking into the Grand Hall of Adulthood.

That was merely the prelude, though. Just two years later we encountered death again, and this time it didn’t even try for ironic humor, opting for flat-out injustice instead. Its victim this time was my own little sister. She was only sixteen years old. It happened in the winter time around 6 o’clock in the evening, when congestion in our little hamlet could get downright ludicrous.

Katie had had a driver’s permit and was behind the wheel of my mom’s brand new Honda with its owner in the passenger’s seat. She was paused at a stop sign near a blind curve, trying to turn right. Katie began her turn a little too slowly in a spot where you really needed to be more decisive. But the derelict who came around the bend doing 75 in a 40-mile-an-hour zone had no excuse but his own stupidity to be taking that curve so fast, no matter how tentatively Katie had acted. The guy had a prior record of other malfeasances to which, on that cold night, he tacked on vehicular manslaughter. He killed my sister. The last I heard he was still in the cooler. But that was some time ago, so he’s probably out by now.


Actually, I didn’t make it home that night either. None of us did. I had a buddy from work attempt to give me a lift home because Tommy had the car we were more or less sharing. He had a longer commute to his menial office job, so I didn’t gripe that he had the car more often. It was a piece of shit anyway, a Chevy Caprice from like 1986.

Anyway, when this guy Chuck from work tried to bring me home, we were coming up over the railroad tracks I mentioned earlier, not far from Industrial Road, when we came upon a police barrier. There were two saw horses positioned in the street and a squad car with the lights going. A lanky cop was standing there glaring at us. I recognized him right away as a guy who had been a few years ahead of me in high school, a real burn-out, once sang lead vocals for a garage band called Cut & Dry. Only now I had to admit he looked pretty cleaned up in his johnny suit. He held up one hand because I guess he wasn’t confident we’d get the message when we saw his Crown Victoria and the wooden horses.

When Chuck rolled down the window the cop said to him, ‘No outlet on this road.’ He left it at that, so we were forced to inquire exactly what the hell that meant.

‘No admittance. We’re in the middle of a contained evacuation process, due to an incident last night.’

Jesus, it’s like this guy memorized the textbook, I thought.

‘But I live just up the way. On Arbor Street. He’s bringing me home.’ I had to lean partway over Chuck’s lap to say this, which was slightly awkward.

The cop canted his head lower to stare at me. Exactly the way they do it in the movies, right before they say, Would you step out of the car please? Then they shoot you and steal your car.

For a minute, I thought he was going to recognize me too. But if he did, he didn’t let it slip.

‘Residents are to be advised that it is unsafe to return to their homes until further notice,’ he said, still quoting from that book.

‘We can’t go to our own houses?’ I asked. Chuck and I exchanged dumbfounded glances. The cop said nothing. Another car behind us, a Dodge Omni, honked. I canted around in my seat and gave a gesture with both arms, the exact translation of which would have been: Seriously, asshole. Where the hell are we gonna go?

Good question, there.

‘Where am I supposed to go, then?’

The cop stared elsewhere, looking up Arbor Street, as if he were Clint Eastwood scanning a forlorn horizon.

‘I guess you’d better find yourself a friend. If possible.’ He grinned.

That part probably wasn’t in the book.

The Meaning of Meaning

As you might expect, Katie’s death transformed our family. Nothing was ever going to be the same again. Everybody knows beforehand, in the academic sense: if you lose a member of your family, life will change. It’s going to be hard. Et cetera. But man – as only experience with death can reveal to you, you do not know the meaning of those words until it happens to your family. That’s because once it does, those words, and all other words, have no meaning.

This was the result of those two tragedies that surprised me the most: the way that they began, very slowly, to strip the substance out of things. It happened in an almost geological way; that is to say, over a period of many years after they happened, they remained coursing through me like some dark river, painstakingly carving a canyon through all that I had thought to be true. This process – obviously – continues.

The ironic thing is that it started with language. That was the first layer of ground beneath my feet that I noticed beginning to erode. This, of course, was right at the time that I was getting started in creative writing as more than a hobby. Rather, it was a serious endeavor that I really believed, as I still do, that I had a vocation-like summons to throw myself into. But a crippling thing occurred in the wake of my two experiences with death. The language itself started to lose the tight grip that had compelled me to write in the first place.

Even worse, there was no one to blame. It was just people being people. After Mutt’s death in 1995, he was showered with superlatives and his head heaped with laurels for his considerable achievements in life – just surviving; functioning in the world when he’d never had the love of his father or the emotional support of his mother; starting his own landscaping business. He’d earned that praise. The problem was that nobody gave it to him while he was still living. Myself included. Very few people gave a shit about Mutt while he was here with us. And that includes the people who conceived him.

Katie’s death – murder, to me – was two years later. Late in 1997, a half year after the chemical explosion. Fair or unfair, people didn’t treat Katie the same way they had treated Mutt – again, including me, Tommy, and everyone else in my family. She was the golden child inside our house; outside of it, everybody loved her. We all still do. My wife, who never even met Katie, told me once that she never could have done any wrong in my own eyes. That shocked me at the time, but she didn’t mean anything negative by it. She was probably right.

After Katie was killed, I noticed that the same thing happened that had happened with Mutt. People would come up to you and say things about your dead sister (or daughter, in my parents’ case) that had either no basis in fact (‘She was flawless’; ‘I never once saw her cry’; ‘She could do anything and do it better than anyone else’) or that had no basis in anything (‘She’s in a better place’; ‘It was just her time’; ‘These things are beyond the understanding of this world’). With most of us, you hear enough of these things, and you just start to tune out.

But I had developed an interest in words, language, and expression, and because of that interest, I was paying attention. It had a terrible consequence. For God’s sake, what had happened to my language? What did all of those words mean? The sympathy cards had their trite poetry. The eulogies had their overwrought superlatives and inaccurate recollections of qualities that couldn’t have been as pure as they were being ‘remembered’. Even the Catholic prayers we recited ad nauseam didn’t seem rooted in modern existence – not for me, not at that time. ‘May the souls of the faithfully departed rest in peace…’ Faithfully departed? My sister’s teenage spine had been crushed by a Ford Bronco doing seventy-five miles an hour.

I had taken composition and literature classes in college, and I fell in love with novels, essays, and the idea of conveying one’s thoughts precisely in the appropriate arrangement of words. But after these tragedies, words began to seem like vapor no matter how they were arranged. This was a considerable problem, because I was still very much interested in writing! No wonder my literary career has been a non-starter. And yet to this day – as you see – I still try.

That’s not even the worst of it. Those two deaths actually led me to troubles even deeper than the literary one – and for an aspiring writer, that’s a mouthful. I noticed that once language began to lose its meaning, so too did the ideas and realities that it existed to serve. Things like: ‘career’. You struggle all of your life trying to advance it. What for? Where did that ever get my father? ‘Faith’. In what? In who? The rite of Mass was all words – prayers, readings, hymns. Did they mean anything? You still ended up dead. “Life”. What was it? What was Katie’s life, what was Mutt’s? When they only hung around for twenty-one years, or less, in the first place?

All of this slowly morphed, festered, evolved, or whatever word there is left to use, into an unruly mass in my brain over a period of years. I’ve said it many times before: how I got my wife to marry me in 2000, seeing as how all of this was rolling along in me like a massive stone gathering moss all the time, is still an utter mystery to me.

The Rant

I ended up at my old friend Rizzo’s house that night, since our entire street had been evacuated. It took a while to track down Tommy. Nobody was carrying around cell phones yet. Eventually he figured out to call over to Rizzo’s place to see if I had gone there. Rizzo was still hanging around town too, of course. We had spent so many nights at his place that it was practically second nature to his mother and father to walk into various rooms of their own home and see one or both of the Meegan twins sitting there.

We stayed at Rizzo’s that first night, the whole next day and night, and then, on the third day, we got the all clear to go back to our homes. Like everything else, it got boring quickly. I can remember shooting hoops that first night on Rizzo’s driveway amid rampant speculation about what had happened, whether or not there would be a toxic airborne event, acid rain, chemicals in the water, mutant babies over time, and whatnot. I don’t even recall what we did about things like brushing our teeth or changing clothes. We either figured something out or just neglected those necessities until we got back to our house. Most likely it was the latter.

It was during that second day that we learned that our father had not come back to the area the night before. In fact, no one even knew where he was. This may be why I can’t remember much about how we filled those 40 hours following the explosion. My father had never done anything like this. My mother was a wreck over it, understandably; but that alone was cause for alarm, because she didn’t get knocked off balance by much. At least, not before her daughter was killed. When we talked to her the next day, she said he had not called her, she had no idea where he had gone or what he was doing, and she didn’t seem to have any clue to what might happen next.

At first Tommy and I were flabbergasted. Something had to have happened. Had he rolled his car into a ditch somewhere? Possibly. Kidnapped? Please. In our town? But as we talked about it and kicked it around with Rizzo, we began to suspect what might have happened. Though you couldn’t call it worse, exactly, than him getting killed in his car, it was in some ways nearly as disturbing, inasmuch as it was a lot less easier to explain.

It was Tommy who first brought up ‘the rant’. That’s what we had already started to call it. We knew that there had been some strain in our household and particularly in our parents’ marriage over the previous one or two years. As far as we knew, it had nothing to do with infidelity or anything of that sort. Our family had been under a terrific financial burden for years, what with three college tuition cycles already having taken their devastating toll, and Katie’s still coming.

We also knew, since he was always counter-productively candid about it, that my father had experienced worsening frustration with his job. He was a scientist by education. He had spent years in classrooms and laboratories as a teacher and research chemist, toiling away in search of compounds that would become drugs used to treat neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. During my entire childhood, he had been employed by a large pharmaceutical company, where it was his primary job to develop these medicines and get them pushed through the extensive and bureaucratic process to bring them to market.

Evidently, advancing this was an endlessly frustrating series of tests, studies, applications, more tests, focus groups, data gathering, and on and on. But it hadn’t been until only a few months before the plant blew up that he had told Tommy and I – just casually, out of the blue – something that let us know just how exasperating the task really was. He said to us that in all of the time he had been working for his employer –since 1978 – they had not been able to successfully bring even one drug to market. Years of research, testing, and endless grappling with the Food and Drug Administration. Something – a lawsuit, an unexpected side effect – always got in the way in the end.

Then there were Dad’s health issues. Although he was never very overweight, he had developed high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and had been visiting a cardiologist with increasing frequency. In 1995, he had had a minor flutter of a heart attack while using a treadmill, more like a fainting spell, but it put an intensifying fear inside of him.

The doctor said he was under too much pressure, and that it was imperative for him to find activities and/or techniques to help him relax. But he continued to work long hours, attend research conferences, and strain against red tape and office politics. He would rarely participate in any social or community events with my mother, for it seemed his whole life was occupied with work and sleep. Katie had gotten really interested in drama in the second half of high school, but Dad missed all her plays. My mother would implore him to find ways to ease up, but he would end up yelling at her, asking her how the hell he was going to do that, when they were still paying the twins’ college loans, with Katie still to go, and a double mortgage?

Finally, one night – about a week before the chemical plant blew up – Dad came home very late from the office. Tommy and I had already gone up to our rooms. I was just lying on my bed, trying to fall asleep. The heat was absurd. He came in and immediately exploded. I had no idea what set it off and I still don’t. He just went nuts. My mother didn’t even try to prevent it from escalating. Every once in a while I could hear her interject a muffled comment, in a reasonable voice, and I had to suppose she was just trying to gently ease him back from the edge, like a cop in the window trying to talk down a jumper. But for the most part she just let it happen, and my father let it fly:

‘….all day long, all year long, I pound my head against a stone wall, I do all of the work, I mark all of the data, I follow every procedure, I cross every goddamn T, and something still gets in the way of it … I spent all of those years in the lab, I put in all the hours of research, for what?? I travel to Europe and I get up in front of those Swiss and Danish and Japanese executives and I make the case, and they pat my head and salute the spirit of my investigations, then they go back to their conference rooms and deny the funding, every fucking time …. I come home, the house is an utter disaster, the boys are loafing around, no drive to do anything, there’s no ambition anymore …. you’re running around all the time, Katie’s got this, Katie’s doing that, the bridge club, the library, the Band parents, it never ends, it’s all bullshit, no one can even stop to breathe, the bills are piled up on the desk, the college calls all the time, all I want to do is sit down …. then there’s Kevin’s up there doing God knows what, living with that girl, she calls the shots, she’s the one driving his life, where the hell is his initiative, what is he doing about anything … but young people always know it all ….'

It was pretty astonishing. He’s losing it, I thought at some point. I don’t know if Katie was asleep already. But I knew Tommy was awake. He was in the next room, but I could tell he was listening just as I was. Maybe I fell asleep before it ended, maybe I heard the entire thing.

The next morning both of them acted as if nothing had happened, ridiculously. I came very close to bringing it out into the open, but at the last minute I decided not too. My intention was to talk to Dad alone about it sometime later. It wasn’t as though we couldn’t talk to him. He would have answered questions about it if I had asked. But I never got around to it. My mother held it together.

On Rizzo’s driveway, Tommy brought up the rant. For whatever reason, I had not thought about it until that moment.

‘I think the ol’ man might have gone off the rails,’ he said.

Rizzo stood there and said nothing. I stopped dribbling. I think Tommy was going for a wry spot of humor. But it fell like one of his bricks onto the pavement.

Do the Math

I have a problem with figures. I always have. Numbers, math, that stuff has never been my thing. I did terribly in every one of my math courses in high school, permanently hobbling my overall grade point average. When I got to college, I made sure I selected a major that had the absolute minimum of mathematical courses required, but I still had to take two semesters’ worth. Then I never took another course with numbers in it ever again.

I’ve never regretted missing out on taking more math courses in college, and I’ve always been candid with regard to my open loathing for numbers. But there’s one aspect of life where this has come back to haunt me, and that is the management of finances. The only times I have really wished I did have a head for figures was when I sat down with a checkbook. Unfortunately, my wife doesn’t particularly have an aptitude for it either. This has gotten us into more trouble than I ever thought possible.

Money was always a major source of strain for my parents when I was growing up – as it is for a lot of couples. The only time they ever really had knock-down arguments would be when things got stressful financially. But one thing they absolutely never did was talk to us about it. We never knew a thing about where things actually stood, let alone how they worked out any problems. If I were to say anything at all about what my parents’ financial strategies were or how they handled even the most basic budgeting practices, I would be making it up. They never shared any of that with us, beyond commenting frequently that money was tight, that it ‘didn’t grow on trees’, that we should always be mindful of the size of our family.

I often wonder about that today as I have found myself embroiled in financial difficulties the likes of which I never would have expected. I knew it was going to be a difficult part of life as an adult, but I think there was a part of me that honestly believed that these matters sort of ‘worked themselves out’. Would it have helped me if my parents – my father in particular – had been more forthright when it came to financial management? Should he have taught me how they made it through those horrific times when Kevin and Tommy and I were all in college at the same time? I don’t know if it would have helped or not, but it never happened.

I understand that to even raise the question sounds like I am tapping my parents as partially responsible for my own failures. They are not to blame. I wouldn’t even have made it to adulthood were it not for how well they did provide. But I still think about it sometimes, especially when I consider ways to help my kids to avoid the calamities that have befallen me. For I never want them to experience the hellishness that financial mismanagement has caused for their mother and I.

My father was extremely old-fashioned when it came to money. That meant two things: 1) you didn’t discuss it with anyone who was not a financial advisor; and 2) the man, the husband, handled everything. You earned the money, you paid the bills, you doled out allowances to the members of your household, and you didn’t bitch about any of it. You also didn’t screw it up. Even the Scriptures said it was on you as head of the house. The book of Proverbs emphasizes it repeatedly. So I came out of my childhood with the understanding that all of it was my job, but with absolutely no idea how to do any of it. And this, to my wife’s misfortune, is how I entered into family life.

Combining this with my spectacular ineptitude with figures made for a deadly mixture as far as my family’s financial health was concerned. We were okay for the first four or five years, Rebecca and I, because we both came into marriage with a certain amount of savings, got a lot of generous monetary gifts for our wedding, rented our home for a long time, and had only one child for four years. But later on, after we bought a house, took out two mortgages, and had my daughter Claire, things got much more difficult.

We developed a dependency on plastic, the deadliest substance known to man. We became masters at spending money we didn’t have, like so many other Americans. I never knew how insidious credit card companies could be, but I was about to find out. Then an element of fate also interjected. The housing market collapsed in the late 2000s, and the rest of the economy followed it over that cliff. Gas prices soared. Raises went out of existence. Interest rates sky-rocketed. Before I could even turn my head I was tens of thousands of dollars in the hole. Creditors were calling me around the clock, at my home, at my office, and on my cell phone. The pressure that it put on my wife and I was unimaginable.

It was right at the time this pressure was at its peak, with the economy in a free-fall, that we found out Rebecca was pregnant with our third child. God forgive me, but my response to that information was a mixture of exhilaration and absolute terror – both in the exact same measure.