Recently I did something I’ve been avoiding for a long time: I read literature by people like me, about people like us.
We go by “Sibs,” short for “siblings of people with disabilities.” I don’t love this term. I’ve had it marketed to me my whole life: I went to Sibs Camp, joined Facebook’s SibNet group, my parents connected me to other Sibs so we could be friends in our bizarre isolation. I even represented Sibs for Parents as Leaders in Wisconsin, sitting three years in a row on a panel, where we answered questions from anxious parents whose lives had been recently upturned by a child’s diagnosis. “It will be all right,” I told them, at age 14. “Look at us, we’re fine,” we said.
My older brother, whose profound cerebral palsy defined my childhood—and who died several years ago of respiratory complications—marks me as a Sib. However, I’ve long mistrusted book recommendations that include, “It sounds like you.” My pride rankles: You don’t know me. Back off.
Still, when I began thinking about writing about my relationship with my older brother—our Wild-West alliance; my adoration of, and then distance from, him as we grew older—I wanted to know what else was out there and what others among us had said.
I found just one relevant book in the barebones D.C. Public Library system, The Normal One by Jeanne Safer. It made me so irate I couldn’t read it with a clear head. It was everything I’d expected to resent in Sib Lit, absolutist, pessimistic and dramatic. I covered it in post-it notes with snide comments. Safer, who calls us the “intact” children and our siblings the “damaged” ones, writes:
Having a damaged sibling marks you. No matter what you achieve, where you go, or who you love, that other’s life remains your secret alternative template, the chasm into which you could plunge if you misstep. Whether you know it or not, his is the doom you dare not duplicate, the fate you contemplate …
Safer’s own family situation growing up was one I didn’t recognize. Her brother had undiagnosed behavioral issues, and as a response, her parents emotionally abused and neglected him. They housed him in a separate part of the building from the rest of the family, visibly favored Safer, and treated her brother as the family scapegoat. The sadness of her family’s circumstances undercut my anger a little bit. I don’t deny anyone self-inclusion in the Sib community, but of the dozens of families with kids with disabilities I knew growing up, none looked like Safer’s. It was difficult to stay livid with her for extrapolating her own life out onto ours; how could she know how far off she was?
It hit me somewhere between pages 110 and 116 that Safer hits upon multitude reasons why Sibs behave as they do: guilt, fear, resentment, neglect, loneliness. But not once in the book did she diagnose a Sib’s behavior as stemming from love for a disabled brother or sister. The shock of this—that she had no knowledge of love between siblings—softened me towards her. I couldn’t begrudge her what she hadn’t known.
After stripping Safer’s book of my post-it notes and returning it to the library, I bit the bullet and ordered used copies of every single other title on Sibs. For days, packages turned up on my doorstep, bulky envelopes and boxes and shrink-wrapped plastic. I put them on a shelf with other titles I found pertinent: Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill, the children’s book The Brothers Lionheart, and Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slapstick. So far, Vonnegut’s deformed twins Eliza and Wilbur still felt like the best literary representation of my relationship with my brother.
What is it about this relationship between a disabled body and a non-disabled body, bound as siblings, that is so impossible to define? From kindergarten through college, I was obsessed with trying to write about it, but I never hit the mark. My brother surfaced as the primary subject in short stories, composition essays, personal statements, poems, communications class speeches, and yet he didn’t. He was never there; neither was I; everything I wrote eclipsed us to become cliché and insipid. I had dozens of tacks to take, but I mostly stuck with the same one: the righteous warrior on my brother’s behalf. All of my efforts came out bland, weirdly ugly and hollow. Even in college, the words sounded childish. I became sick of myself. I decided to stop writing about him.
After Safer, reading through the rest of Sib Lit became a quest. I wanted to find something true, some Sib who had figured out how to transcend our particular brand of Hallmark prose. I read practical guides from Sibs-turned-professional-empaths, essay collections and memoirs. Almost all of the Sibs’ siblings in this genre had an intellectual disability, mostly autism. There were few to no books written by Sibs like me, whose sibling had a physical but not intellectual disability. Unlike my brother, most of the disabled siblings could speak. Most of the authors in this genre are women, this for reasons obvious as soon as I learned why: Research shows that as adults, sisters are more likely than brothers to become caretakers for their siblings with disabilities. In the face of a thankless task, women step up.
The clinically-focused literature, like Safer’s book, tended to diagnose Sibs’ ills, and then offer strategies to Sibs and practitioners for managing our specific brand of distress. Some of these I couldn’t take seriously; I’m still mulish on this subject, and chapter titles like “Your feelings and how to cope with them” elicit from me an arrogant laugh. Of this subset, I responded best to Being the Other One by Kate Strohm, who gently avoids generalizations about Sibs through phrases like “may be” and “some siblings.” In Strohm’s pages, I caught a few glimpses of myself and grudgingly tagged them. Yes, I worked hard to make my parents feel better. Yes, their marriage dissolved anyway. Yes, I can’t imagine ever having kids of my own. Yes, my closest friends all have chips on their shoulders to rival mine.
But as in any diagnostic, don’t I miss as many symptoms as I hit? Doesn’t everyone, inevitably? Experts can yammer on about us for centuries but all they’ll ever come up with is the clinical equivalent of a horoscope. I mean this with all due respect. When I read of a supposed Sib characteristic that, however fleetingly, matches my own, it feels like a revelation: I’ve got it! I try to hold on, to follow the author’s thinking, but we’ve only intersected in that instant. The rest of the diagnostic was about someone else; about the author herself; about a composite of mes around the world. It reminds me of sitting in church as a teenager, trying to follow the sermon. I’d surface from a daydream to catch a phrase that stuck to me, and then strain to focus, to follow the thought through its successive mutations. Before long it was lost again.
These books offer snippets, reflections but not the original image. Nadine Gordimer’s profile of a prodigal sister in Burger’s Daughter was sharper. Again the fiction seems more real.
Strohm quotes numerous Sibs throughout her book. One, whom she calls Nance, says that talking about her brother consistently “brings tears to [her] eyes,” that her emotions are triggered the moment she tries to articulate their relationship. The subject can’t breach her voice box. I don’t need to tell you that my throat has the same switch. There is so much contained there, contained in my body and heart that will never make it past my skin or out of my mouth. I think sometimes that it can’t be possible.
Books upon books are devoted to exploring grief and trying to describe its contours, and more still engage with the fascinating nature of siblinghood. The full spectrum of nonfiction books about Sibs, however, fit on one shelf in my office. There isn’t one about simply having a brother with cerebral palsy. And why would there be? Who the hell would want to deal with this material, this inexplicable bind? The pseudonymous Nance politely shrugs: “It just seems there are many feelings that I have never acknowledged, and unfortunately…speaking about [my brother] in an intimate sharing way almost always brings out the tears.”
I hear her. In all my stabs at writing, I mastered spins and platitudes. But watch me try to say one true thing about my brother and me, and I will fucking crumble.
Since a writing fellowship in Banff in 2017, I’ve adhered to the idea that the details of what happened are the best path to meaningful explanations. To glean truth from the facts, I turned to memoirs Sibs had written about their childhoods and siblings.
Even here, truth was hard to find. What I read felt like family stories, the kind told over and over again and that highlight family members’ quirks. Every family has these. They’re how we collaboratively define ourselves and what we use to describe our dynamic to others. (My family likes to rehash an incident involving chocolate chip cookies and the can-can.) These were the kinds of stories I told my whole life, trying to explain who we were: limitations explicated, plots tinged with slapstick humor, my sardonic tone as the punchline.
If possible, I saw even less of myself in the Sib Lit memoirs I read. I should note: These memoirs were about Sibs whose brothers and sisters had primarily intellectual disabilities. Karl Taro Greenfeld, in Boy Alone, wrote about his brother with autism; Eileen Garbin, in How to be a Sister, wrote about her sister with autism; Rachel Simon, in Riding the Bus with my Sister—the most successful of the batch—wrote about her sister with what was once called mental retardation. I closed these books wondering what, if any, overlap these families had with mine. Many of these authors wrote of containment: containing their siblings’ outbursts, sounds, activity, mood swings. I remember my house as the opposite. We lifted, carried, pushed; I bent my energies to making my brother’s still mouth break into a wide grin. Do we actually belong in the same bubble, sharing life hacks on SibNet and bunk beds at Sibs Camp? Does our commonality come less from our experiences with our siblings, and more from our experiences with the outside world?
Greenfeld’s memoir, Boy Alone, is cuttingly sad. Spoiler alert—after describing his and his brother’s difficult childhood, Greenfeld spends 50 pages at the end of the book describing how, after years of stagnation, his brother slowly starts to make progress. He grasps rudimentary ASL, which helps bridge the gap to verbal language. He becomes more independent and gets a job as a copyeditor. He marries his childhood friend. Culminating this trajectory, he travels by himself to visit Hong Kong. Which is when the author fesses up: None of this happened. There was no progress, no happiness that his brother found in life. If anything, his situation deteriorated; he was institutionalized in various dirtholes and subject to systematic abuses including sexual assault. The twist is gutting.
I wonder which part of the book, truth or fiction, was easier for Greenfeld to write. I can’t imagine my brother’s life with speech or mobility. But, reading Boy Alone, it feels as though the fake story is Greenfeld’s sanctuary, as though this imagined life is somehow more tangible than reality. What does it say about a facet of someone’s life, if a seasoned journalist like Greenfeld would rather skim the facts and embellish the fantasy? Is it akin to my cynicism, to my dislike of self-help texts while identifying with Vonnegut’s enfants terribles?
In How to be a Sister, Garbin describes how, as an adult, she watched a documentary about autism, “my heart full of emotion. If it were a nice feeling, I’d say my heart swelled. But it was more like a bulging, like it might kill me. It was a terrible feeling. Part empathy, part schadenfreude.”
Why are there so few books about Sibs on my shelf? It’s like instead of brain drain we all have heart drain. As if, unable to bear the intensity of our most fundamental sense of home, we live in emotional exile.
When I say ‘autism,’ I feel the weight of the letters resonate beneath my collarbone as if the word is tattooed on my skin. When I hear the word in the mouths of strangers, the mouths of teachers, the mouths of celebrities, my heart constricts. I feel lonely and familiar at the same time, homesick, like someone is talking about a place I used to live.
Another possible reason for the dearth of Sib Lit, and for why so much of it feels trite and hollow, is because as Sibs we are usually only rewarded for bringing our archetypes to life. There is a market for stories about Sibs who are martyrs, Samaritans, self-destructive, game, empathetic, and resentful. This market has been around since I can remember, and the purveyors of these archetypes have been relatives, friends, teachers. Of course I learned how to be a cliché. Of course these books sound overly familiar to me.
Our siblings don’t fare much better. Garbin writes, “Whenever I mention that I have an autistic sister, people always ask me what Margaret is like. What they really mean, though, is what her autism is like.” Similarly, in an essay called “Riding to the Fountain with My Sister,” Simon writes that she remembers how “people asked me almost nothing about” her sister,
nor about our relationship. It seemed as if it was enough for them to know that I had a sister with a disability, the one then called mental retardation. [In adulthood] the lack of curiosity from others did not waver. It was those same shallow questions, over and over. Never anything about what TV shows Beth liked and I didn’t, or what names—nice and nasty—we called each other.
These days, the words I’m trying to put down about my brother are frightening. No one’s ever asked me about most parts of our relationship, and meanwhile I’ve become so good at saying what people expect me to say. It’s difficult sometimes to stray from those tried-and-true lines. I fear that in explaining my brother’s disability, I’ve erased him.
The Sib Lit book that managed to transcend so many of these pitfalls was Simon’s Riding the Bus with my Sister. Part self-discovery memoir and part stunt journalism, the book centers mainly around Simon and her sister, Beth, as adults. Beth, who occupies her days riding public buses around the city, challenges Simon to join her for a year; this is the premise and structure of the book. It’s a bit like an urban Wild.
What works for Simon in Riding the Bus with my Sister is that she approaches the story both as a participant-observer and as a diarist. While parts of the book do sound like those “classic family stories,” most of it feels like two real adult women trying to renegotiate their relationship. Beth the person is more believable than Beth the disability.
I didn’t see myself in this book. I barely used any post-it notes while reading it. Simon and her sister were so obviously not me, so singularly themselves, that there was no point. It felt like an opening of space instead. Like I could breathe. I didn’t find a good reflection of my relationship with my brother, but I did find a way out from the funhouse mirror maze.
Perhaps like Simon, the trick to curing Sib Lit is to dissolve it, and with that, its strictures. To force our unrehearsed truths into the mainstream. To be plainer, less analytic, less charming.
In my case, it’s hard to tell whether this will be possible. Because he died when we were both in our 20s, my brother and I never really got the chance to figure out our adult relationship. We’re rooted in my memories, which I worry are prone to fogging and revision. And as Safer points out, that leaves me in a tough spot: Siblings are “the only surviving witnesses to your intimate history. Nobody else will remember your childhood.” I’m left to hope that, in spite of him being gone, I’ll be able to remember more than the stories I’ve rehearsed.
Image credit: Unsplash/Larm Rmah.
In 2014 we lost some great writers — two Nobel laureates, prize-winning poets and playwrights, a beloved memoirist/poet, an unrivalled nature writer, satirists, historical novelists, crime novelists, biographers, critics, and authors of books for children and young adults. Here is a selective compendium:
Incendiary poet and playwright — or old man playing with matches? Champion of the disenfranchised — or racist, anti-Semitic homophobe? There was never a consensus on the merits of the prolific writer who was born Leroy Jones, began publishing as LeRoi Jones, changed his name to Amiri Baraka, and died on Jan. 9 in his hometown of Newark, N.J., at 79.
Regardless of what he called himself, the man was always going against the grain. Born into Newark’s black middle class, he dropped out of prestigious Howard University, then got a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force before melting into the bohemian hothouse of 1950s Greenwich Village. There he married a white woman named Hettie Cohen, who helped him found a literary magazine that published his work and that of many Beat notables. As his career took off — his poetry was gaining notice, his play Dutchman won an Obie Award, and he wrote perceptively about black music — he became increasingly radicalized. He shed his white wife and moved to Harlem, where he helped found the Black Arts Movement. The murder of Malcolm X in 1965 and Baraka’s savage beating by white cops during the 1967 Newark riot — which he called a rebellion — completed his radicalization.
The transformation, in some eyes, did not improve his writing. The poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth lamented that when the gifted Jones became the angry Baraka, he also became “a professional Race Man of the most irresponsible sort.” That dart resonated a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Baraka, then poet laureate of New Jersey, gave a public reading of his poem “Somebody Blew Up America.” It read, in part:
Who knew the World Trade Center
Was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
The poem’s anti-Semitic overtones led the New Jersey General Assembly to abolish the poet laureate’s post. Baraka fought the move in court, without success. Six months after Baraka’s death, his son Ras was elected mayor of Newark.
Peter Matthiessen could make just about anything interesting to readers. A restless naturalist who devoted himself to preserving the planet’s vanishing wilderness, Matthiessen produced more than 30 works of fiction and non-fiction on such subjects as Peruvian tribesmen, Long Island fishermen, Caribbean turtle hunters, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, Florida cane planters, a safari in Tanzania, migrant farmworkers, and Native Americans. His human subjects were joined by a menagerie of white sharks, snow leopards, shore birds, and other exotic species. Matthiessen, who died on April 5 at 86, is the only writer ever to win National Book Awards for both fiction and non-fiction.
His resumé was nearly ridiculous. A son of privilege — which made him uneasy — Matthiessen grew up in an apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park. He attended Hotchkiss, Yale, and the Sorbonne. In 1953 he co-founded The Paris Review, though it wasn’t until years later that it came out that the magazine was Matthiessen’s cover for his brief career as an operative for the C.I.A. He befriended a who’s Who of American letters, including William Styron, George Plimpton, and E.L. Doctorow. He became a commercial fisherman and a Zen priest.
Matthiessen’s last novel, In Paradise, was published three days after his death. He was a connoisseur of the world’s most unforgiving terrain right up to the end: the novel tells the story of a group of people who come together for a meditation retreat on the grounds of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
Too bad America hasn’t produce a satirist to skewer Ronald Reagan and the depredations he visited on America in the 1980s. England was blessed with Sue Townsend, a self-educated high school dropout whose fictional teenage misfit, Adrian Mole, got millions of readers to laugh at the highly Reaganesque bill of goods Margaret Thatcher sold to Great Britain during the 1980s.
Adrian Mole may have grown up in a chronically underemployed working-class family and he may have attended shabby, underfunded schools, but he learned to love royal weddings. In adulthood, he fell victim to predatory lenders and wound up living in a converted pigsty — a nifty metaphor for the fallout of Thatcher’s merciless policies. Townsend, who died on April 10 at 68, shared Adrian’s grim upbringing and his ambivalent view of the Iron Lady. “Sometimes I think Mrs. Thatcher is a nice kind sort of woman,” he tells his diary in 1984’s The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole. “The next day I see her on television and she frightens me rigid. She has got eyes like a psychotic killer, but a voice like a gentle person. It is a bit confusing.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Few writers are as deeply loved by readers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature, though deserved, was almost beside the point. He had already earned a writer’s most treasured honor: the devotion of millions of readers around the world.
Like many of those readers, I came to his work through One Hundred Years of Solitude, a masterpiece of magical realism that I started reading on a fall day in 1974 and read straight through in two sleepless, nearly foodless, intoxicating days. The book changed my life, opened me to new worlds and new ways of seeing. As astonishing as it was — those all-night rains of yellow blossoms, those swamps of lilies oozing blood — I think Love in the Time of Cholera was an even better book. It teemed with fleshed-out characters and their potent emotions. It was less reliant on stylistic pyrotechnics and whimsy. It was earthier, meatier than its more famous predecessor. It showed us that love grows more solid the closer it comes to death.
Other readers will have good reasons for preferring one or more of the other 15 books by the amazing Marquez, who died on April 17 at 87, having achieved the thing all writers yearn for, whether they admit it or not: immortality.
Thirty-two years after Robert Frost recited “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration in 1961, Maya Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Those events stand as twin pinnacles in the power and prestige of American poetry. But Angelou, who died on May 28 at 86, will probably be even more vividly remembered for her searing 1969 memoir about growing up in the Jim Crow South, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, one of the six volumes that recount the story of her remarkable life.
After growing up mostly in Stamps, Ark., a small town brimming with “dust and hate and narrowness,” she traveled the world working as a dancer, calypso singer, streetcar conductor, prostitute, actress, magazine editor, college professor, and civil rights activist, associating with nobodies and with such notables as James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Oprah Winfrey, and at least two U.S. presidents. Her poetry was more coolly received by critics than her memoirs, but her influence was undeniable. In 2011 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. And on the day she died, President Barack Obama remarked, “She inspired my own mother to name my sister Maya.”
“Don’t try to fool an Indian who has seen a lot of white men.” So advises 111-year-old Jack Crabb, the unforgettable narrator of one of the greatest novels written by an American, Little Big Man. Its author, Thomas Berger, who died on July 13 at 89, will be long remembered for that astonishment of a novel, though too few readers realize that he produced two dozen others, as well as a sprinkling of stories and plays. In addition to the myths of the American West that he dissected so deftly in Little Big Man, Berger’s other great subject was the mores of the American middle class, whose deep-rooted paranoia he satirized wickedly in such novels as Neighbors (made into a 1981 movie starring John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd), The Feud, The Houseguest, and Best Friends. In these novels, routine social encounters have a way of morphing into comic horrors. A disciple of Franz Kafka, Berger’s range was vast. He wrote horror, pulp detective stories, science fiction, utopian fiction; he mined Greek tragedy, the survival saga, and the Camelot myth; he wrote about invisibility and time travel; his literary alter ego, Carl Reinhart, who appeared in several novels, was described as “representative of the unrepresented.”
Once highly sociable, Berger in his later years became a recluse in a league with J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon. Even his publisher and literary agent didn’t know how to get in touch with him. In a rare interview in 1980, Berger posed a rhetorical question: “Why does one write?” He answered, “I suspect that I am trying to save my own soul, but that’s nobody else’s business.”
Nadime Gordimer cast a wide net in trying to capture the iniquity and human cost of apartheid in her native South Africa. She crossed lines of race, class, religion, and gender, bringing to life the cinderblock mazes of the black townships, the poolside barbecues of white society, the terror visited on those who resisted society’s rigid divisions. She brought to life Indian Muslims and mixed-race characters. Her Booker Prize-winning 1974 novel, The Conservationist, had a white male protagonist.
Gordimer, who died at age 90 on July 13 (the same day as Thomas Berger), wrote two dozen works of fiction, personal and political essays, and literary criticism over the course of a 60-year career. Some critics saw her personal struggle for liberation from her possessive mother as a mirror of her characters’ struggle against apartheid. Though she insisted she was not political by nature, she became engaged in the struggle — joining the banned African National Congress, passing messages, hiding friends from the police, driving people to the border — and she used many of these events in her fiction. The authorities were not pleased, and they banned three of her books, including one of her best known, Burger’s Daughter.
On Feb. 11, 1990, after 26 years in captivity, Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison into the sun-washed streets of suburban Cape Town. The first person Mandela asked to see was Nadine Gordimer. A year later, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Mark Strand set out to be an artist. But while studying under the great colorist Josef Albers at Yale, Strand discovered poetry and embarked on a long and fruitful career that included a stint as U.S. poet laureate, a Pulitzer Prize, a Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and the publication of his selected poems last year. Strand, who died on Nov. 29 at age 80, was too dark for some tastes, but he insisted that his poems were “evenly lit.”
In the 1980s, after a decade and a half of publishing poems shadowed by death and dissolution, Strand became dissatisfied with the autobiographical vein of his work, and he stopped writing poetry. He turned to writing children’s books and short stories, books on the painters Edward Hopper and William Bailey, and a collection of critical essays. Late in life, he made collages with paper he had made by hand. Eventually he returned to writing a more expansive kind of poetry.
In a Paris Review interview in 1998, the year before he won the Pulitzer Prize for Blizzard of One, Strand mused about death: “It’s inevitable. I feel myself inching towards it. So there it is in my poems. And sometimes people will think of me as a kind of gloomy guy. But I don’t think of myself as gloomy at all. I say ha ha to death all the time in my poems.”
Here’s one such ha ha, moment from the poem “The Remains,” in Strand’s 1970 collection, Darker:
I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.
What good does it do? The hours have done their job.
I say my own name. I say goodbye.
The words follow each other downwind.
I love my wife but send her away.
My parents rise out of their thrones
into the milky rooms of clouds.
How can I sing? Time tells me what I am.
I change and I am the same.
I empty myself of my life and my life remains.
Kent Haruf (rhymes with sheriff) staked out his patch of literary ground and never stopped working and reworking it. Like William Faulkner (Yoknapatawpha County), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Macondo), Flannery O’Connor (rural Georgia), and Patrick Modiano (Paris during the Nazi Occupation), Haruf, who died on Nov. 30 at 71, became possessed by his chosen place. He called it Holt, a fictional small town on the high plains of eastern Colorado, a place of “pointless cruelty and simple decency,” where he set all of his fiction, including his 1999 breakthrough, Plainsong, and Our Souls at Night, which will be published posthumously in May.
Single-mindedness can lead to repetitiveness, and some critics noted that Haruf didn’t outdo himself with each new book; rather, he redid himself. One critic went so far as to compare Haruf’s prose to Pottery Barn furniture, with its “aged patina” and “rustic lines.” But Haruf’s many fans embraced the moral clarity of life in Holt — the town’s esteem for honest work, its belief in innocence as a virtue — and they saw the place as a refuge from the snark and irony and equivocation that fester beyond the rim of the high plains.
This list doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive, but there were a number of other literary deaths in 2014 that are worth mentioning. In alphabetical order they are:
Norman Bridwell, creator of the Clifford children’s books; James MacGregor Burns, an award-winning political biographer and student of the art of leadership; Mary Cheever, the long-suffering wife of John Cheever, who published a book of her poems in 1980, two years before her husband’s death; P.N. Furbank, a British critic and scholar best known for his biography of E.M. Forster; Mavis Gallant, a master of the short story whose great subject was rootlessness; Doris Pilkington Garimara, an Australian Aborigine whose book about the government’s brutal campaign to eradicate the native population, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, became the basis of the 2002 movie Rabbit-Proof Fence; Dermot Healy, the Irish novelist, poet, and memoirist regarded by many as a modern master in the mold of Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett; P.D. James, who became known as “The Queen of Crime” for her layered mysteries starring the dashing detective Adam Dalgliesh; Galway Kinnell, who won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for lyrical poems written to be understood, as he put it, without the help of a graduate degree; Alistair MacLeod, a Canadian writer whose lofty reputation was built on his single novel, No Great Mischief, and two collections of stories; the far more prolific Walter Dean Myers, who wrote more than 100 books, including best-selling children’s books centered on the lives of disenfranchised black kids; Alastair Reid, the peripatetic poet, New Yorker writer, and translator; Rene Ricard, an eighth-grade dropout, brilliant self-taught poet and art critic, painter, and movie actor, who Andy Warhol called “the George Sanders of the Lower East Side”; Louise Shivers, a late-blooming Southern writer who produced just two novellas but won rapturous praise and comparisons to Flannery O’Connor.
Through your words you will all live on.
Drawings by Bill Morris
I had a good reading year, mostly because of my favorite book. Seek by Denis Johnson wasn’t my favorite, but it was powerful, and it made me want to get a motorcycle. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis made me want to be smarter. Michael Frayn’s The Human Touch was stimulating in almost every line.
I found an old copy of Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter and couldn’t put it down (except twice when I fell asleep—some bits are dull). It tells the story of a young woman awakening to her father’s and her own radicalism in contemporary South Africa. I thought about Gordimer later when I was reading Amis; Gordimer’s just as stylish as Amis, I think, but she doesn’t play the show-off, at least not here.
For short stories, Floodmarkers by Nic Brown was wonderful: naughty and covert. Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was better than the hype—when does that happen?—riveting and powerfully anti-horseshit.
But my favorite of the year was Middlemarch. I loved it. The story doesn’t stop opening, there’s limitless room for consciousness. Eliot sustains her inquisition, loves gossip, and rewards patience—the perfect novel. Same pleasures as the best of Jane Austen, but with a much bigger payoff. I still think about it all the time.