Monday, June 30, 2014

Now is the Hour by Tom Spanbauer

I want to talk to you today about a book I should have reviewed several years ago when I first heard of it. The book is Now is the Hour,  written by a local author, Tom Spanbauer. Walking with one of my oldest friends and walking partner, I was introduced to Tom and immediately asked him if the name of his novel had anything to do with the song of the same name; it was the very first song I ever learned by heart from listening the radio. As you will see if you read the book, it has a lot to do with the song of the same name. 

Although this is a work of fiction, it reads very much like memoir, and I would be very surprised if it were not quite closely autobiographical. The lead character, Rigby John Klausener, like Spanbauer himself, grew up in Pocatello Idaho. His mother is a staunch Catholic who holds a tight rein on Rigby John, and his farmer father is a stern and tough man whom Rigby John describes as one ornery bastard. “Cold, irritable, impatient. One ornery bastard.” Spanbauer dedicates the book to his mother, and the deep love Rigby John has for his mother is apparent from the first page, and that he almost always disappoints her causes him to suffer greatly. A younger brother, Russell, is born with severe birth defects and lives for only a short time, and when he dies, a light goes out of his mother’s eyes. 
Russell came home screaming, and he screamed for a hundred days, and no one could sleep, and then he died. Mom was never the same. The music stopped, and she locked herself inside her room with Dad, and me and Sis were outside her room, and her eyes were never the same. I couldn’t find her anywhere in them, couldn’t find me, she was so far away. 
The highlights of his young life are the times when his mother, sister and he dress up in fancy clothes and jewelry from a large trunk in the attic, and as Rigby John tells the reader over and over, all three when dressed up were “scintillatingly gorgeous.” But, of course, they couldn’t let his father find out about the dress-up game. 

When the reader first meets Rigby John, he is seventeen and hitchhiking to San Francisco, hopelessly alienated from his family because “My family and the sex-shame-guilt thing. Sex and my family just don’t mix, like Mormons and Coca-Cola.” Bad enough that his mother has caught him literally with his pants down, masturbating, leading to a frenzy of confession and Hail Marys. His love affair with his own penis is enough to condemn him in his mother’s eyes, but that he is also gay is so over the top that he has no choice but to run away.  

I happen to have also read a short time ago Wallace Stegner’s autobiographical coming of age novel, Big Rock Candy Mountain. Both books are wonderfully honest accounts of growing up, and I would have to say that I think Spanbauer’s is the better book, partly because it is such a subtle and insightful exploration of homosexuality and of prejudice against native American people. I also preferred it because I think Spanbauer is so much more understanding of his parents, even his stern onery father than Stegner, whose hatred of and vitriolic rants against his father taint the last sections of an otherwise lucid and interesting story. Spanbauer seems to understand and forgive his parents, despite the grief they cause him as he struggles to discover himself and his sexuality. Even on the road to San Francisco, intensely sad and having to flee, he is able to at least partially understand their reasons for treating him as they have. 

Like so many young people who find themselves in tight, repressive communities with condemnation seeming to come from all sides, often enough leading not only to confusion but self-hatred, Rigby John finds solace in reading—his path into a larger and more open world. 
Mom and Dad wanted me reading only good Catholic stuff. The only good Catholic stuff to read are your daily missal and the Bible and The Lives of the Saints, so anything that was good I had to hide. I had to smuggle Steinbeck and Willa Cather and Hemingway inside my pants. Reading made everything different. I was no longer stuck in a world with my mom and my dad and my sis and Catholics and Mormons on a goddamn farm out on the Tyhee Flats. Before books, my secret places were just places I could hide. Now my places were where I could go to read and find out about people who were like me. Of Mice and Men, My Antonia, Winesburg Ohio, A Moveable Feast.
Like Rigby John (and Spanbauer), I grew up with a self-righteously religious mother (Mormon in my case). As I came to learn, she knew very little about Mormonism or even Mormon texts; she simply knew that it was THE TRUTH, and that any who doubted it was  lost. Spanbauer’s Pocotello was probably even more politically conservative than the Salt Lake I grew up in in the 40s.

Spanbauer captures the diction and customs of the country people he grew up around. He tells us over and over that they are differnt (not different, but differnt). He tells such a good and convincing story, capturing both the humor and the heartache of trying to grow into one’s sexuality, especially when faced with criticism on almost all fronts. The friendship of one girl (as differnt as he is from those around her), and then of two Hispanic farmworkers and later one very colorful gay Native American man saves him from his isolation and encourages him to find a world not so hostile to his beliefs and his body.

I read Spanbauer’s wonderful book, The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon, many years ago and loved it for many of the same reasons that I love Now is the Hour. He is a truly gifted writer, and one who helps us to see that it is not bad to be differnt. I recommend him to you, especially those of you who found yourselves in a strange and foreign and cramped space as you grew up. His liberation is one that we can all learn from.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere by Poe Ballantine

I want to talk to you today about a wild and wonderful little book by a writer whom I had never read, but who is already much loved by a group of writers and readers of his essays, impressed by his scorching honesty and his loving humor. The book is written in the style of a memoir, and is billed as memoir, but the over-story (the impetus for the book) is the disappearance of a small college math instructor, lending the book the flavor of a mystery. The title of the book like the chapter titles is indicative of the free-flowing narrative within, Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere. The story takes place on those howling plains, specifically in the small town of Chadron, Nebraska. Like many of his characters, Poe has drifted to this small town for no particular reason; he has drifted from town to town, job to job, all of his life. One of his themes seems to be, “Why do drifters drift?” and “What makes them catch and take hold if and when they do?”

 On one of Poe’s drifts he finds himself in Mexico, where he falls for Cristina, who for two years has  slowly been recovering from being run over by a drunk driver. He describes Cristina as  “…a quiet, serious young dentist who lived with her parents.” Despite their age disparity and cultural differences, they are simpatico; they marry and have a son, Thomas, who  they soon discover displays many of the symptoms of autism, prompting much discussion in the book about this name given to a complex overlapping set of behaviors. Poe’s rambles with Thomas provide some of the most touching moments in this book.

I actually see the book not so much as a personal memoir but as a freewheeling discussion of so many topics:  the meaning of “history,” the function of literature (or art in general), the meaning of autism, what it means to be faithful to a partner. 

Once Poe and Cristina settle in Nebraska, and he scratches out a living for them by cooking in restaurants (one of his most reliable odd jobs), Cristina begins to question him about why he wastes his time writing when he could be working more and bringing in more money. It’s a struggle for her to understand what writing means for him, and a struggle for him to understand why only money-making activities count. “Literature was a waste of time, and though I made a few thousand a year at it, she thought I should get a full time job with the Department of Transportation.”

To Ballantine’s credit, he owns up that he knew what he was signing up for when he partnered with Cristina; he understands her values, her history, and has plenty of his own doubts about why he feels compelled to write. He also understands her resentment about not being able to practice dentistry in this country, and at not being able to adequately express herself in this cumbersome second language.

Cheryl Strayed, a great admirer of Ballantine’s essays, consented to write an introduction the book. She says, “You know who Ballantine is in every sentence he writes because in his mastery he makes himself known. He’s bold and perceptive and utterly transparent. He writes like every word is his last. Like the whole place is about to burn up. He’s like a bird that’s not quite but almost extinct: when you see him, you can’t help but look.”

I think this is a wonderful description of the helter-skelter style of the many segments (chapters?) of the book, some only a page or two. His understanding of small town life, of loneliness and transience, of marital struggles all come out in the journal/diary quality of the book. 

The style and course of the book is announced in its first words:
I first came across Chadron, Nebraska, by accident, in 1994. I had borrowed a car, thrown all my meager belongings in the back, and driven west, the direction of escape after disaster, the direction of decline and the setting sun. I intended to kill myself. The farther you go west, the higher the suicide rate gets, and I thought perhaps that would give me the momentum I needed. In America we remake ourselves, though it rarely works out.
How do we remake ourselves, and how was the west made? Two questions chasing each other throughout this book. In my intentionally unstructured approach to reading, there nevertheless  arise patterns, perhaps due to a kind of synchronicity. In the past few weeks, I have read a half dozen or so books all having to do with the exploitation of the west and with debunking romantic myths about how the west was settled. First I stumbled onto Annie Proulx’s recent set of stories, Bad Dirt, all set in Wyoming, Montana, and Nebraska. I had loved her novel The Shipping News, but had been unable to get into later novels. This time, I read all three of her collections of short stories under the title Wyoming Stories, and also her novel dealing with the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, That Old Ace in the Hole. My partner’s response to my raves about Proulx and my rethinking of western myths was to give me the Ballantine memoir, yet another story about how the west was lost, and I topped all of this off with Wallace Stegner’s autobiographical novel, Big Rock Candy Mountain, in which  Stegner’s dad, another drifter in search of his fortune, led his family through a succession of towns and homes and wild, often illegal ventures—always looking for the big kill, the final deal.

What I have carried away from all of this is a new look at rural life and of how conventional morality so often teams up with economic exploitation to subjugate people and strip the land. The horror stories Proulx tells about the Texas and Oklahoma pan handles [simply by researching and understanding and reciting to us the history of how the rush for oil, and now the rush for water, along with  the pollution of corporate farming (gargantuan hog-farms), pesticide poisoned fields and waterways, has altered the land]. And while creating real, believable characters, she tells compelling stories  about so-called ‘simple’ people, she shows the settling of the west for what it was, debunking the noble cowboy and heroic, civic-minded rail-line constructions versions, and replacing them with a much more rapacious and money-hungry account. 

It’s been a wonderful romp through western literature, though it has certainly not inclined me towards life in a small western town, living with the twin threats of self-righteous, conventional morality (really conventional immorality) and economic domination/obliteration.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively

Today I want to talk to you about an amazing writer who has been as important to me as any I can think of. Her name is Penelope Lively, and I’m going to be talking about her brand new book, Dancing Fish and Ammonites, which she says “is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age.” Lively is now eighty years old, and judging from this not quite memoir, she is still going very strong indeed. Lively won the Booker Prize for Moon Tiger, published in 1997, and she has written many other novels, collections of short stories, children’s books and scholarly essays. Her latest book, like all or almost all of her earlier work, is focused on memory and time.

Lively’s first intellectual interest was in archaeology, an interest she never lost. She read history at Oxford, married an academic, and has continued to read history, fiction, science, and pretty much whatever she could lay her hands on. She was born in Cairo in 1933 and remained there until she went to England on a troop ship in 1945. Perhaps because I, too, am at what Lively would call the portal of old age, I find her essays on aging and memory fascinating. A lot of the reading I have done lately by or about growing old has been quite depressing, focusing primarily on what is lost as we age. Lively is well aware of the diminishment that aging can (and inevitably will) bring, but she manages to focus on what is left rather than what is lost. She has certainly had her share of the infirmities that come with age.
[I] avoid, occasionally, I fear: that hazard light worn by the old—slow, potentially boring, hard going. Now that I wear the light myself, I am nicely aware of the status. This is a different place. And since I am there, along with plenty of my friends, the expedient thing seems to be to examine it. And report. 
We are many today, in the Western world: the new demographic. I want to look at the implications of that, at the condition, at how it has been perceived. And then at the compelling matter of memory—the vapor trail without which we are undone.
Lively sees herself primarily as a reader. Although she realizes that not all readers are, or become, writers. For her, reading became writing. This almost memoir would be worth reading to a devoted reader simply for the long list of books she mentions while describing her own journey as a reader. 

I decided long ago, near the beginning of my teaching career, that what I needed most (both for myself and for my students) was to read, and to do so in what Lively calls a “mostly undirected, unstructured reading.” Reading only philosophy and directing all my writing energy to writing esoteric journal articles seemed to me to short change both myself and my students. 
[I]…must read. For me, reading is the essential palliative, the daily fix. Old reading, revisiting, but new reading too, lots of it, reading in all directions, plenty of fiction, history, and archaeology always, reading to satisfy perennial tastes, reading sideways too—try her, try him, try that. 
Reading in old age is doing for me what it has always done—it frees me from the closet of my own mind … The one entirely benign mind-altering drug … My point here is to do with the needs of old age; there is what you can’t do, there is what you no longer want to do, and there is what has become of central importance … I have reading.
In this little collection of essays on memory, gardening, writing, and history Lively takes her readers on a historical journey of the past eighty or so years: the Suez canal crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the new wave of feminism.
For me, interest in the past segued into an interest in the operation of memory, which turned into subject matter for fiction. I wanted to write novels that would explore the ways in which memory works and what it can do to people….
And she certainly does just this. From the aging scholar heroine, Claudia, living out her last days in a nursing home in Moon Tiger, to a landscape archaeologist and a gardener in The Photograph to the World War II veteran who becomes an architect in City of the Mind and her earlier memoir of her own childhood in Cairo Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived, Lively pursues her interest in the operations of memory. Her own scholarly research into psychological tracts on memory shows up in so much of her writing. As she has her characters say again and again in her stories, “it’s all happening at once,” as past, present and projected future fuse into one for the lived life of each person.

Many years ago, Moon Tiger was the first of her novels that I picked up. A brother and a sister at the sea shore fighting over an ammonite that both claim to have discovered launched me into her world of ruminating about time and memory. 
That is why history should be taught in school, to all children, as much of it as possible. If you have no sense of the past, no access to the historical narrative, you are afloat, untethered; you cannot see yourself as a part of the narrative, you cannot place yourself within a context. You will not have an understanding of time, and a respect for memory and its subtle victory over the remorselessness of time. 
It would be easy to write pages and pages simply of quotes from this remarkable little book. It is a testament to a reader’s life well lived. Hopefully, those who read it will be driven to read some of her novels, or simply to copy out the long list of books she mentions as part of her own vast reading past.
What we have read makes us what we are—quite as much as what we have experienced and where we have been and who we have known. To read is to experience. 
I can measure out my life in books. They stand along the way like signposts… 
My old-age fear is not being able to read—the worst deprivation. Or no longer having my books around me: the familiar, eclectic, explanatory assemblage that hitches me to the wide world, that has freed me from the prison of myself, that has helped me to think and to write.
Bravo and carry on.