Those Who Left Us: Select Literary Obituaries of 2019

Death didn’t discriminate in 2019—it took down the acclaimed, the obscure, and a little bit of everything in between.

Here, in more or less chronological order, is a highly selective list of literary lights that were extinguished in the past year.

The Giants

Someone needs to buy a granite mountain and get out the chisels and jackhammers and start carving a monument to the three literary giants who left us this year: the decorated poet laureate W.S. Merwin, on March 15 at 91; the beloved Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, on Aug. 5 at 88; and the empyrean critic Harold Bloom, on Oct. 14 at 89. This monument will put Mount Rushmore in the shade.

The Two-Bit Publisher

Elizabeth Norah Jones was born in 1919 in India, where her British father worked as an agent in the lucrative opium trade. After marrying an American named Ian Ballantine and changing her name to Betty, she sailed with her husband from London to New York in 1939 to escape the looming war and undertake a daring mission: to establish an American beachhead of Penguin books, the British publisher that had hit upon the novel idea of reprinting quality literature between paper covers at the irresistible price of 25 cents.

Betty Ballantine, who died on Feb. 12 at 99, faced daunting challenges. There were just 1,500 bookstores in America at the time, so Betty and Ian started displaying their books—by H.G. Wells, P.G. Wodehouse and other British writers—in drugstores, newsstands, train stations, and department stores. In 1952, when the Ballantines opened their own eponymous line of both original and reprinted paperbacks, Betty demonstrated that she was no genre snob. She scoured the pulps for promising science fiction stories and worked to turn their authors into novelists, among them Samuel R. Delany, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury. She also published fantasy, westerns, mysteries, even romance. The Ballantines democratized literature by literally bringing it to the streets. Writing in 1989, on the 50th anniversary of their arrival in New York, Betty wrote that Ian and she were “the only surviving father and mother of the paperback revolution.”

The Biographer

Edmund Morris has posthumously published another magisterial biography. His Edison belongs on the same shelf with his three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, the first of which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Edison, published five months after Morris died on May 24 at 78, opens with the great inventor’s death in 1931—an event of national importance—and it then moves backward in time to his birth in Milan, Ohio, in 1847. This narrative ploy is jarring at first, but eventually it coheres, unlike Morris’s decision to inject a fictional character named Edmund Morris into his nonfiction book Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. That book got mixed reviews, including charges that it was “dishonorable” and “bizarre” and “a loony hodgepodge.” Morris, who got a $3 million advance, was unfazed. He claimed he was not a historian and was less interested in politics and government than in “character, narrative, the strangeness of reality.” And in Ronald Reagan he might have found his ideal subject. “He was,” Morris said, “truly one of the strangest men who ever lived.”

The Queen of Poolside Reading

Judith Krantz understood that people will buy your books by the tens of millions, no matter how they’re written, as long as they’re packed with those most seductive and timeless of human pursuits: money, sex, and shopping. Known as the Queen of Poolside Reading, Krantz, who died on June 22 at 91, reigned atop the bestseller lists for two decades, beginning with Scruples in 1978. I was an apprentice writer at the time, and I read the novel in the hopes of understanding what it takes to send a book to the top of The New York Times bestseller list. The answer was in the opening paragraphs: money. The titular boutique is described as “the world’s most lavish specialty store, a virtual club for the floating principality of the very, very rich and the truly famous.” The floating rich? I thought the very, very rich traveled in private Leer jets. Scruples was nestled on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, “the most staggering display of luxury in the whole world.”

In a single sentence, Krantz mentions the fashion houses of Saint Laurent, Lanvin, Nina Ricci, Balmain, Givenchy, and Chanel. I had never heard of Balmain, but I remember being impressed by the brazenness of Krantz’s brand name-dropping. And then, of course, there was the sex. Here’s our heroine seducing her pilot after he has taken her aloft so she can scatter her late husband’s ashes: “Now her lips and tongue were working together around the almost erect penis, which, though fairly short, was thick, as sturdily built as the rest of him. As he grew thick and then thicker still, she shifted her mouth slightly and worked only the swelling tip, treating it with strong, unfaltering suction, while the fingers of bother her hands now slid up and down his wet, straining shaft.” After taking a cold shower, I realized I had learned an invaluable lesson. Though I had no interest in reading or writing such prose, I had genuine admiration for someone who could pull it off without a hint of apology or shame. Krantz claimed she wrote “Horatio Alger stories for women.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that she sold more than 85 million books and made many millions of dollars. You can’t take it with you, but during her long productive life Judith Krantz raked in a whole lot of it by sticking to an unbeatable formula: She gave her readers exactly what they wanted.

The Immigrants’ Daughter

Paule Marshall was born and raised in Brooklyn by parents who had emigrated from Barbados. Throughout her five novels and various short story collections and novellas, Marshall used the rhythms of West Indian speech to paint pictures of resolute black women who had tasted loss but refused to become acquainted with defeat. Her breakout novel was 1959’s Brown Girl, Brownstones, about a couple from Barbados living in a Brooklyn brownstone that is riven by a conflict: As told by their daughter Selina, “a ten-year-old girl with scuffed legs and a body as straggly as the clothes she wore,” the mother dreams of buying the brownstone, while the father dreams of returning home to Barbados. The pungent, richly atmospheric novel was championed by Langston Hughes and was, in the words of the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, “the beginning of contemporary African-American women’s writings.”

Paule (the “e” was silent) Marshall, who died on Aug. 12 at 90, said that her life as a writer began at her family’s kitchen table. She came to regard the West Indian women who gathered around that table as poets. These women spent their days scrubbing floors to earn “a few raw-mouth pennies,” and they had come to understand that language was their only weapon in America, a forbidding place they called “this man world.” As in: “In this man world, you got to take yuh mouth and make a gun!” Language was also therapy, a refuge, a homeland, an outlet for their rumbustious creative energy. To be pregnant was to be “tumbling big,” which inspired: “Guess who I butt up on in the market the other day tumbling big again!” The young girl doing her homework in the corner drank in every word, and a writer was born.

“They taught me my first lessons in the narrative art,” Marshall wrote in The New York Times in 1983. “They trained my ear.” She also noted that other early influences included Austen, Thackeray, Fielding, and Dickens—and then, belatedly, Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose poetry and fiction taught her that her own experience, including the stories told by those strong women at her family’s kitchen table, could become the stuff of literature. When Brown Girl was reissued in 1983, Darryl Pinckney wrote in an introduction: “Paule Marshall does not let the black women in her fiction lose.”

The Bartender’s Son

There are three things I remember about the day in 2000 when I interviewed Nick Tosches at his go-to lunch spot, the celebrity hangout Da Silvano restaurant in Greenwich Village. The first was his black fedora, the second was the cloud of cigarette that seemed to wreath his head for hours, and the third was what happened when the magazine magnate S.I. Newhouse passed our table. Tosches said, “Hi, Si, how’s it going?” To which Newhouse replied, “Not bad, Nick. You?” I was stunned—this slash-and-burn writer, this street-rat son of a Newark bartender, was on a first-name basis with power and money!

Just as memorable about that day was Tosches’s excited talk about the novel he was working on, which would become 2002’s In the Hand of Dante. Tosches, who died on Oct. 20 at 69, predicted that the novel was going to be his “big book,” the one that would overshadow his celebrated rock ’n’ roll journalism and his bestselling biographies of Dean Martin and Jerry Lee Lewis. I enjoyed the book, but I’ll let the critics judge if he was right. Eventually that day at Da Silvano, Tosches and I got around to talking about the thing I had come there to talk about: his weird little new book, The Devil and Sonny Liston, which was not quite a biography, not quite a memoir, more a riff on the journey of a man who came from nowhere, rose to the pinnacle of the boxing world, then crashed and abruptly returned to oblivion. The story of the man who dethroned Liston, Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), did not interest a writer with Tosches’s deliciously skewed sensibilities. Sonny Liston’s life, on the other hand, was Tosches’s idea of the perfect parable about the killing cost of fame in America. Like everything else he produced, it was a book only Nick Tosches could have written.

The Sharecroppers’ Son

Ernest J. Gaines, the son of Louisiana sharecroppers, will be best remembered for creating a 110-year-old black character named Jane Pittman who was born a slave on a Louisiana plantation and lived long enough to fight for civil rights in the 1960s. Gaines’s 1971 novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, was a critical hit, a bestseller, and fodder for a TV movie starring Cicely Tyson that won nine Emmy Awards. The novel, told in Jane Pittman’s distinctive vernacular, is an act of ventriloquism in a league with Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, and anything Mark Twain ever wrote. Gaines, who died on Nov. 5 at 86, followed his breakthrough with A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying. Gaines was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Bill Clinton and the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama, and in 1993 he received a MacArthur “genius” grant. Quite a journey for someone who grew up on the River Lake Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, La., where he attended school five months of the year because he had to spend the other seven months working.

The Pit Bull

Stephen Dixon came to fiction writing after studying international relations and dentistry, but once he found his voice, there was no stopping him. In prose that was “knotty” and “challenging”—these are words used by his devoted fans—Dixon poured out 18 novels and some 600 stories, pounding away on a portable typewriter like a pit bull on steroids. His subjects included random spasms of violence in suburbia, a drive-by shooting on an interstate highway, a bar owner’s battle against corrupt garbage collectors—in short, the undertow of unease in modern urban life. Two of his novels, Frog and Interstate, were finalists for the National Book Award, but his writing never sold well. His paragraphs had no desire to end, sometimes running for pages, veering from marital bickering to tender depictions of friendship, love, and the writing life, and many of his stories entertain possible alternate futures. His most memorable creation may have been his compulsively randy alter-ego, the writer Gould Bookbinder, whose overheated libido inspires one of his seduction targets to tell him: “You’re not only a big schmo, but a pathetic jerk.” A complicated, fascinating, pathetic jerk.

Dixon taught at Johns Hopkins University for many years, where he gave his students a copy of his guide to pitching stories to magazines, which included dozens of publications, the names of editors, rates, and insider tips on what to try to sell them. As one of his students, David Dudley, put it: “Dixon seemed to approach the whole Art of Fiction thing with a refreshing absence of pretense; writing was more like steam-fitting or hanging drywall, a craft performed by hand, every day, until you got halfway good at it and could get paid.” Stephen Dixon, who died on Nov. 6 at 83, understood that writing was work, it was a job, it was something you do every day because you have to do it and because it’s worth doing and it’s worth doing well as you possibly can.

The Polymath

Clive James succeeded in marrying that oddest of couples: erudition and television. James, who died Nov. 24 at 80, was a polymath who wrote novels, poems, memoirs, translations, song lyrics, journalism, and criticism. He seemed to be interested in everything, from Dante to tango to Formula One racing. He was a serious writer—and wit—who became a television star in England, where he settled after leaving his native Australia. He called his television column in The Observer “the real backbone of my career as a writer,” and its popularity—along with his ubiquitous appearances on the small screen—probably lowered critical opinion of the rest of his writing. Life can be as unfair as death. As if to rehabilitate his reputation as a serious critic, James published Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts in 2007, an alphabetical compendium of everyone he considered worth knowing in the 20th century. A giddy, wide-ranging mash-up of high and low, the book was 40 years in the making, and it’s a delight to read. Here’s how James described his approach: “The writer represents all the expressive people to whom he has ever paid attention, even if he disapproved of what they expressed.” Thus he gives us sparkling sketches of Adolf Hitler and Margaret Thatcher, as well as Albert Camus and Dick Cavett (the closest any American has come to being a Clive James), W.C. Fields and Gustave Flaubert. How did Tacitus make the cut? Don’t ask, just enjoy. Who ever decreed that food that’s good for you brain shouldn’t be fun to read?

James has been called a comic public intellectual, but he had the mashed face of a pub brawler or, as he put it, a bank robber who forgot to take the stocking off his head. Looks can be a blessing in disguise. With James, as with all writers, the work is all that matters. And this polymath’s work was built on solid rock. As he was dying from leukemia and emphysema, he said that if a plaque were ever erected in his honor, he would like it to read: He loved the written word, and told the young.

The Sidekick

This last one is personal. Keith Botsford, a versatile man of letters who was a friend and collaborator of Saul Bellow’s, died in London the summer before last, on Aug. 19, 2018, at 90. His death went largely unnoticed until this past summer, when The New York Times obituary desk was updating a prepared obituary of Botsford and learned, belatedly, of his death. I was the writer of that advance obituary, and it ran in The Times on June 14 of this year, nearly 10 months after Botsford’s death. It was the delayed realization of a lifelong dream for me—to publish an obituary in The New York Times.

The obituary noted that Botsford met Bellow when both were teaching at Bard College in the early 1950s. At a cocktail party one night, Botsford, then a budding novelist in his mid-20s, looked across the room and saw a colleague in distress. “It was Saul Bellow, and he was pinned against the wall by a dreadful man from Winnipeg,” Botsford told me when I interviewed him by phone for the obituary. “I had just read The Adventures of Augie March, so I walked up and started talking to him.”

A friendship blossomed, and the two men wound up collaborating on several literary magazines, including The Noble Savage, ANON, and News From the Republic of Letters. Bellow, who died in 2005 at 89, called this last effort “a tabloid for literates,” and he described himself and Botsford as “a pair of utopian codgers who feel we have a duty to literature.”

In his long life, Botsford wore many hats—novelist, essayist, journalist, biographer, memoirist, teacher and translator. He was also a composer of chamber works, choral music, and a ballet, and was fluent in half a dozen languages. He said he helped Bellow write his acceptance speech when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976. “We had an intellectual love for each other,” Botsford said of his long-time friend. “He liked to call me his sidekick. I found the title perfectly honorable.” I get the feeling that after living such a long, rich life, Keith Botsford died a happy man.

I Know He Enjoyed Your Calls

In early March of 2019, I spoke with my friend Frank on the phone for only the second time in months. He had recently moved into a senior center in Maryland, and he was depressed. His younger daughter had died of cancer. I had written, called, and left messages for him, not realizing how restricted communications can be with someone in a senior facility when you’re not related. Access is often limited.
It was the longest I’d gone without seeing or talking with Frank for more than five years.
That day he called. It was after dinner on a Saturday. He was trying to get better, he said. He was focused on it. “I wanted to call because I consider you like family,” he said. “I told my daughter if something should happen to me—”
I started to interrupt. But he was firm: “Face it, I’m 92 years old.”
He told me a story. He said one of the staff at Greenfield Senior Living had found “the book” in Frank’s room. By the book, he meant my book, Cork Wars, which had just come out, about Frank and a few others during World War II. Frank had been keeping his copy to himself—he didn’t want to draw attention. “But Trish found it and asked if she could read it,” he said. “She was surprised” that he was in a book.
Later, Trish told him she and another staffer wanted to read the book aloud to all the residents over a few days. Frank grudgingly let her. But he wanted to curate it: He marked the chapters that related to him and said those were the ones they should read. Of course it felt good to hear him say this. Besides massaging my author’s pride, it told me Frank was feeling better.
First Interview
It was November 2013 when I first visited Frank at his home in east Baltimore. I was just going to scout a potential source for my book about corporate espionage in WWII, immigrants, and the different ways families got entangled in war, from the factory floor to the CEO suite. I wanted to interview Frank about the company where he had worked, Crown Cork and Seal, and what he’d seen during WWII.
I walked up to the front door of the bungalow on suburban 47th Street, a blue-collar neighborhood. I gave even odds that we wouldn’t click at all. When I called Frank to set up the interview, what struck me was his voice: cement poured through a coarse sieve, a fibrous Baltimore baritone with grit and street. Which is how he sounded when he welcomed me inside his house. I imagined myself through his eyes: a privileged, college-educated guy who hadn’t had to work as hard as he had. But he invited me to have a seat in an overstuffed chair and we talked. We meandered around several topics, and in that first conversation I wasn’t sure if he was providing much I could use in my writing.
One of my early questions, about his first factory job as a drill operator at a war factory, immediately made him defensive. I asked how old he had been. “I was working with a permit,” he said. “I was 15 years old.”
He handed me a slim folder documenting the milestones of his career at Crown Cork and his pay history. “Look through it and tell me what you want to know,” he said. “I don’t want to get you all confused.”
Invasion of Privacy
I got a little confused about timelines when Frank spoke, but his story felt important to the story I wanted to tell. I wasn’t sure how, at first, but over the course of more than a dozen conversations, we focused on his teenage years during the war, growing up in an Italian-American family, and being part of the war effort. We’d sit in the two living room chairs facing the front door, and he’d give me an hour or so of his time.
My questions got more personal: How was it when he had to leave high school to get a job after his father died? How did it feel getting drafted when his three older brothers were already in the army? I asked where his father was buried, and how his mother responded when she was left to take care of the family.
We talked about Frank’s fears of shipping out to the Pacific. How did he feel, landing in the Philippines? What did he think then about the impending invasion of Japan? What did he see, coming back to unemployment in America? How did he propose to his girlfriend? How much did they spend on the wedding?
These conversations happened a couple years after my father died. So besides gathering string for my work-in-progress, I was asking questions I couldn’t ask my father. I enjoyed talking with someone from that generation. Frank was almost 90, almost my father’s age.
The Words That Bind
There’s a long tradition of interview relationships. Truman Capote famously befriended Perry Smith in prison and used that rapport to craft the most chilling details of In Cold Blood. “I thought he was a very nice gentleman,” Smith told Capote about Herb Clutter. “Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.”
At the other end of the emotional spectrum is Mitch Albom, who already knew the man whose conversations would become Tuesdays with Morrie (first a memoir, then a film, then Broadway!). Morrie Schwartz had been Albom’s sociology professor. Albom framed the book as his last class, a one-person tutorial on the meaning of life. “The son of poor Russian immigrants, Morrie was blessed with a crescent smile that crinkled his eyes and made everyone feel like family,” Albom wrote after seeing him again. These visits yielded dialogue but also caregiving lessons as Albom accompanied Morrie to the toilet and pounded his back at the direction of a physical therapist to loosen congestion. But Albom’s journey was into his own emotional core. From a college grad who mocked Schwartz’s sentiment, their conversations moved the author to epitomize that sentimentality, ending with a vision of his departed friend amid “stars and moons and planets, I see him dancing in the sky.”
Polymaths Eileen Myles and Jill Soloway engaged in a double fantasy version when they interviewed each other after—or rather, during—the dissolution of their relationship. Myles’s memoir Afterglow was in bookstores when they appeared together at the Hammer Museum in October 2016. To watch the video is to witness a fascinating performance of disclosure. Soloway frames the conversation: “We have things in our relationship that we haven’t quite worked out yet. And we thought we’d just process our relationship onstage here for you guys,” she says, adding, “We want to invite audience participation throughout.”
“We met very much like this. We met onstage,” Myles observes. “Being in each other’s work is a funny kind of exposure for a relationship.” Later Soloway’s 2018 memoir, She Wants It, talked more about Myles and the relationship.
I had no intention of complications as I returned again and again to visit Frank. I had a book to write and was simply grateful he made time to talk. I was also interviewing two other families about their experiences of life during wartime.
Escalator to the Galleys
Frank and I talked about ways to change our routine: going to the racetrack with his Pimlico group, or heading out for lunch at one of his favorites. But his schedule was as jammed as mine. He and his friends in the Pimlico group already had a regular outing. By the weekend, sitting and talking in his living room was usually his preferred option.
I would get there in the afternoon, having gone through my notes of our previous talk and identified gaps I meant to flesh out. The Eastern Avenue exit from the highway just after the tunnel, past the harbor, became a familiar turn.
Over time, Frank shared more personal memories and frustrations. He recalled the indignities of government suspicion of Italian Americans, and officials taking away his father’s shortwave radio as a security risk. He wrestled with how difficult it was to express some things from that time.
“How can I instill that I have seen death, that I’ve seen poverty, that I’ve seen sadness, that I’ve seen people that, if you have any compassion, it would break your heart?” he asks. “How do I relate that to someone who didn’t see it?”
His tangents added a dimension to my book. I realized it was important to include more about the wartime restrictions on immigrant families from different backgrounds labeled “enemy aliens.”
The book finally came together and I sent the manuscript to my editor, but I kept finding reasons to visit Frank. Did he still have the letters he and Irma exchanged during the war when he was in the Pacific? Did he have photos of the two of them during those years? And what did his grandson do for the Patent Office anyway?
This was how our relationship shifted: through Frank’s endless patience with my questions and through his sense of being heard. Finally in late 2017, I had a printout of the chapters that involved him, and brought the sheaf of pages for him to peruse.
That time, he made me lunch. Gnocchi with red sauce—he pulled out the jar, so I’d know what to look for when I wanted to make it myself. We enjoyed it at his kitchen table, and he sent some home for my wife. Frank’s independence at 91 staggered me. He was still driving himself around, volunteering at his local delegate’s office, and handling calls from constituents.
I was conscious of the transition in our exchanges from informant to writer to something else. The book launch was a few months away. Frank said he would join some events including one at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.
He was facing the annoyances of age. But then one hit him from out of the blue: His younger daughter got a cancer diagnosis. She was fighting it, and he was visiting her every week.
In April 2018, I called him several times and left a voicemail after his cheeky prompt (“You’ve reached the voicemail of Frankie Dee. Please leave a message.”). Unusually for him, I didn’t hear back. So that weekend I went to check on him. It was a glorious spring afternoon and I walked up to his door and rang the bell. I waited. Eventually the next-door neighbor came out and told me that Frank had been taken to the hospital a few days before. He’d been depressed since his daughter died. We both hoped Frank would be home after a few weeks’ rest.
On the highway back to D.C., I passed 18-wheelers as Courtney Barnett’s “Sunday Roast” expressed my hopes for Frank: Keep on keepin’ on. You’re not alone. I’ve heard your stories.
By late summer, the family saw he would not be able to stay in his house alone. I was still talking about book events we could do together, where Frank could tell his story like we’d talked about. I invited Frank and his daughter to a launch event in December. But I was losing direct touch with him.
Back in Dialogue
Rafael Alvarez, the writer who had introduced us, messaged me in January: “i just visited with frank at the nursing home. very sad.” Rafael said. I realized Frank had swayed at least two of us scribblers to keep up with him long after filing our stories. There were probably more.
I phoned Frank a few times at the center, and caught him once after the 5:30 dinner. It was good to hear his voice, but he sounded down. Still, he stayed on the line and by the time we ended the call he was laughing.
When he called me in early March, he sounded somewhat stronger. He started chatting about his surroundings and spoke about why he was depressed. He wanted to inform me, as if for the first time and he was breaking the news gently, that his younger daughter had died. It was really hard on his older daughter, he said.
Late Fragment
He’d become sort of a star at Greenfield. There are so many women and so few men. “A few weeks ago they had elections for the King and Queen of Valentines,” he said. He got worried. There was no way he would be King of Valentines, he said. So he filled out five or six ballots with other men’s names and put them in the ballot box. Still, it looked like the staff was intent on their plan so he—“and my daughter told me I shouldn’t do this”—pried open the box and grabbed out half a dozen ballots with his name on it.
It didn’t matter. He still ended up King of Valentines at Greenfield.
By the end of his story we were both laughing. Maybe, it seemed, he would have some more days that were OK.
But, as we ended the call, he was clear: He would reach out and call me when he felt like it. So I held back. I let go of our fantasy of having him join the event at the museum, which would highlight his part of the book and his career in Baltimore industry. But I wanted to visit him at Greenfield.
The Longest Odds
A few weeks after our phone call, I shared his story at the Museum of Industry. It was a crisp evening and the last sunlight off the harbor was shimmering. The only missing element was Frank.
Later I made notes to myself to call him. I knew I had said I’d wait for him to call, but I also thought the calls helped him. So I called on Saturday evening, May 4. It was Kentucky Derby day and I figured we’d have something to say. He did. He already knew the outcome and was aware that it was the longest-odds win in the Derby’s history. He said to tell my wife hello, and to be sure to pick up a jar of gnocchi from the store, reminding me of the brand name. “Sure, Frank,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
Two weeks later I heard from Frank’s daughter that he had passed away that Sunday. “It was unexpected,” she said, “He never got over my sister’s passing,” she said. She thanked me for staying in touch. “I know he enjoyed your calls.”
Probably not as much as I did. But the main body of our relationship remained in the book, and for that I’m grateful. Frank would say life is not all sweetness and light. Then he’d make a joke.
Image source: Hans

Gene Wolfe and the Book of Gold

On a Saturday afternoon in 1983, I picked up Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer in the Fountain Bookshop in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I was 15 years old and a Dungeons & Dragons nerd; I spent a lot of time skulking around the Fantasy and Science Fiction sections of the city’s bookstores. I was drawn to The Shadow of the Torturer by Bruce Pennington’s cover art, which depicted a man in a black cloak striding away from a ruined citadel, a huge sword on his back. The image promised something along the lines of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion Cycle, a baroque, heroic tale with melancholy underpinnings. Promising, too, were the blurbs from Ursula K. Le Guin (“The first volume of a masterpiece.”) and Thomas M. Disch (“Dark, daunting, and thoroughly believable.”). I opened the book and started reading. The first chapter was called “Resurrection and Death.” The first sentence included a word I’d never encountered before: “presentiment.” In the opening scene, some kids were up to no good, trying to get past the locked gate of a cemetery. Sold.

The Shadow of the Torturer concerns an orphan named Severian, who is an apprentice in the guild of torturers—known formally as the Order of the Seekers of Truth and Penitence. The setting is a vast city on Earth (now called Urth) so far in the future that the sun is dying, so far in the future, in fact, that at times it feels like the past. In the world of this novel, science is so advanced that it resembles sorcery. It’s hard to know the mystical from the mechanical. For example, the torturers and other guilds occupy “towers” that the attentive reader realizes before long, are rocket ships. On one level, The Shadow of the Torturer is a fairly conventional bildungsroman. Severian advances from adolescence to early manhood, has his first sexual experience, learns about the complexities of adult life, commits a crime and, by the end of the book, is exiled, setting him on his heroic (or, perhaps, anti-heroic) path.

On another level however, the book is a meditation on the ravages of time, memory, and the ceaseless struggle against extinction and obsolescence. Severian has the gift of total recall. He can remember every moment of his life back to early childhood. At times this seems like a curse. Early in the novel, the torturer’s apprentice is dispatched to the city library and archives with a message for the curator, Master Ultan. Delighted to have his solitude interrupted by a visitor, Ultan prattles on about the vast collection he oversees. Wolfe’s pacing is unhurried. A narrator who remembers everything will give you lots of details:
We have books whose papers are matted of plants from which spring curious alkaloids, so that the reader, in turning their pages, is taken unaware by bizarre fantasies and chimeric dreams. Books whose pages are not paper at all, but delicate wafers of white jade, ivory, and shell; books, too, whose leaves are the desiccated leaves of unknown plants…. There is a cube of crystal here—though I can no longer tell you where—no larger than the ball of your thumb that contains more books than the library itself does.
This last item is typically Wolfean. How can the crystal contain more books than the library, when it is part of the library’s collection? Ultan then goes on to describe the method by which apprentice librarians are selected:
From time to time, however, a librarian remarks a solitary child, still of tender years, who wanders from the children’s room…and at last deserts it entirely. Such a child eventually discovers, on some low but obscure shelf, The Book of Gold….
Then the librarians come—like vampires, some say, but others say like the fairy godparents at a christening. They speak to the child and the child joins them. Henceforth, he is in the library wherever he may be, and soon his parents know him no more.

For the right reader at the right time, The Book of Gold is more than an escape. It is a gateway out of childhood into the adult world and a companion for life. The Book of Gold is malleable; it is a different volume for every reader. I didn’t know it at the time, but on that Saturday afternoon in Belfast, I’d found my Book of Gold in The Shadow of the Torturer and its successors—The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch—which together make up a long novel called The Book of the New Sun.

Gene Wolfe died on April 14, Palm Sunday. He was 87. I’m writing this on Easter Sunday, April 21. I was offline most of Holy Week, traveling with my family, and didn’t hear the news of Wolfe’s death until Good Friday. All of this feels uncannily appropriate, a turn of events one might find in a Gene Wolfe novel. As Jeet Heer wrote in The New Republic last week, Wolfe was a writer “with a deeply Catholic imagination.” Born in New York City and raised in Houston, he came to his faith in his mid-20s, after serving as a combat engineer in the Korean War. The experience of the war was traumatizing and left him, in his own words, “a mess.” (In 1991, a small Canadian publisher, U.M. Press, released a volume of Wolfe’s letters to his mother from Korea. They do not make for cheerful reading.) Wolfe converted to Catholicism shortly before his marriage to Rosemary Dietsch, in 1956. He credits her with saving him. As Heer observes, Wolfe, like James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor, wrote analogical fiction that “fused the literal, the metaphoric, and the philosophic into the same narrative.”

Wolfe’s service in Korea was part of the impetus for writing The Book of the New Sun. “I wanted to show a young man approaching war,” Wolfe wrote in the essay “Helioscope.” From his apprentice origins in the citadel, Severian goes on to become an executioner, a soldier, and ultimately a Christ-like savior of the world. Wolfe’s faith informed his decision to make his protagonist a torturer: “It has been remarked thousands of times that Christ died under torture. Many of us have read so often that he was a ‘humble carpenter’ that we feel a little surge of nausea on seeing the words yet again. But no one ever seems to notice that the instruments of torture were wood, nails, and a hammer…. Although Christ was a ‘humble carpenter,’ the only object we are specifically told he made was not a table or a chair but a whip.”


In the autumn of 1984, I sent Wolfe a fan letter. My family had moved from Northern Ireland back to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where, after three years in Belfast, I had a hard time fitting in among the cliques of the public high school. I was miserable and contemplated suicide. Fortunately, there were a lot of Gene Wolfe books available at the local public library. I read as many of them as I could: The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe’s Book of Days, The Devil in a Forest, Operation Ares, Peace, and The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. The title story of that last volume was a particular favorite. Its adolescent protagonist, Tackman Babcock, lives in a disused resort hotel on a barrier island with his divorced mother and her younger boyfriend, Jason. The atmosphere is Southern Gothic and the setting feels only tenuously connected to reality. (The mother refers to the hotel as the House of 31 February, which tells you everything you need to know.) The reader soon learns that the mother is a drug addict and Jason her supplier. Tackman senses something’s not right, but he’s either unwilling or too young to grapple with it. He copes by reading an adventure story similar to H.G. Wells’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” which features a mad scientist, Dr. Death, and his nemesis, the heroic Captain Ransom. The characters and events from the story begin to bleed into Tackman’s life, supplanting his grim reality. It’s a postmodern genre allegory. His mother overdoses but survives. At the hospital, Tackman is told that he will be going into foster care while she recovers. The boy is afraid to finish the book he’s been reading, telling Dr. Death, “I don’t want it to end. You’ll be killed at the end.” To which Dr. Death replies, “But if you start the book again, we’ll all be back.” During that year, I leaned heavily on this idea of reading not as escapist, but as regenerative and sustaining.

A week before Christmas, a padded envelope arrived in the mail for me. Inside, there was a book-shaped object in wrapping paper, with a label reading: DO NOT OPEN BEFORE CHRISTMAS OR YOU WILL BE CROTTLED BY GREEPS. FIAT! FIAT! FIAT! There could be only one person who would write such a label, but I obeyed the directive and didn’t open it until Christmas Day. Gene Wolfe had sent me a copy of Universe 7, an anthology featuring stories by Fritz Leiber, Brian W. Aldiss, and himself. On the title page of Wolfe’s story, “The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton,” he had written in blue ink, “For Jon Michaud” and signed his name. It was the greatest gift of my short life.

With that, I began a correspondence with Wolfe that lasted about two years. He was kind and generous and patient and encouraging. He answered my questions about his books, and offered reader’s advisory services, directing me to the seminal Harlan Ellison-edited anthologies Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions as well as the work of an up-and-coming writer named Nancy Kress. I asked him for his 10 desert-island books and his answer was an index of his influences: The Bible, Shakespeare, Remembrance of Things Past, The Pickwick Papers, and The Complete Father Brown. (He also included a practical volume, How to Be a Hermit by Will Cuppy.)

Along the way, Wolfe taught me what it took to be a writer. Here he was, the winner of the Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, and he still worked a full-time job as an editor at the trade journal Plant Engineering. Wolfe did his writing early in the morning, before going to the office. He wrote at least five drafts of his books, a number that was daunting for a teenager who had trouble finishing first drafts. At one point he noted that his latest book was on hold while he did his taxes. Wolfe was a devoted husband and a father of four children. His example was a welcome counter to the romanticized notion of the philandering rebel artist. Regular habits, a strong work ethic, and a love of revision were the secret ingredients to a successful writing career.

When an English teacher at my high school refused to let me write a term paper about Wolfe’s books because he wasn’t “well known” enough, Wolfe sent the man a letter, listing his awards and prizes. “But judging a novelist by his credentials is like judging a racehorse by its bloodlines; performance is what matters,” he wrote. He included paperback copies of The Shadow of the Torturer and Peace for the teacher to read. By that time, though, I’d graduated from high school and was on my way back to Northern Ireland. Wolfe’s books and letters, his kindness, had carried me through a very difficult time in my life.


Wolfe published more than 30 novels and a dozen collections of short stories in his long career. Eventually, he was able to give up his day job and write full time. His oeuvre is uneven. Though I own a signed, limited edition of Free Live Free, the novel he published after The Book of the New Sun, I’ve never been able to finish it. The arch cleverness of some of his other works has, at times, left me cold. But those examples are the minority. Wolfe memorably explored ancient Greece in The Soldier Trilogy, and he returned to the universe of The Book of the New Sun in The Urth of the New Sun and two successive sequel cycles, which are complex and rewarding extensions to his masterpiece. (And it should also be said that Wolfe remains a chronically underappreciated practitioner of the short story.) His influence can be seen widely. Neil Gaiman has been vocal about his admiration for Wolfe, calling him “possibly the finest living American writer.” Perhaps there would have been no Game of Thrones without Wolfe’s Urth as an antecedent. “I learned so much from Gene,” George R.R. Martin wrote last week.  To my mind, the Citadel, where Samwell Tarly goes to learn to be a maester, is an homage to Master Ultan’s library in The Shadow of the Torturer.

Remember what Ultan said about the child who discovers The Book of Gold? “Henceforth, he is in the library wherever he may be, and soon his parents know him no more.” That was true for me. I went on to become a librarian. About a decade into my library career, I wound up working in the archives of The New Yorker. One day, going through a card catalog of the magazine’s contributors, I came across Wolfe’s name. He’d published a single story in the magazine, “On the Train,” in April of 1983, which would have been right around the time I picked up The Shadow of the Torturer in the Fountain Bookshop.

I made a photocopy of the card and mailed it to Wolfe. It had been more than a dozen years since we’d corresponded and I allowed in my letter that he might not remember me. A week later came the reply. “Of course I remember you,” he wrote. And then he offered to read and critique whatever I was working on. He was there all along. And now he’s not.

The Saving Grace of Mary Oliver

The poet Mary Oliver had one wish for her end of days. “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world,” she wrote in her poem “When Death Comes.” But in the massive outpouring of sympathy that followed her death on Thursday at 83, it is clear she was so much more than a mere visitor. With her evocative poems that combined emotion, nature, and accessibility, Oliver inhabited a life of beauty and language, and she leaves behind a body of work that has taken up residence in the lives of many.

But she was especially beloved by queer readers and writers. She was one of us, after all, sharing her life with the photographer and gallery owner Molly Malone Cook for four decades until Cook’s death in 2005. Oliver’s queer identity and search for meaning provided the subtle underpinning for much of her work and we—in search of understanding, comfort, fortitude—often saw ourselves and our questions reflected in it.

I came to her work as I was coming out, wrestling to break free from the specter of fundamentalist religion that had stalked my childhood and adolescence. At the heart of my struggle was an exhausting question I had asked myself over and over: am I good? I had prayed, fasted, and denied myself for years in hopes of becoming something I was clearly not, of changing myself, and the time had come for a reckoning with the truth.

My question, Oliver told me in her poem “Wild Geese,” was beside the point. There was a more open, inclusive spiritual journey to join:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
        love what it loves.
Goodness, she seemed to believe, was innate, a gift not to be earned but accepted. I had a “place / in the family of things.”

As I moved deeper into her images and lines, I realized that her poems were as sturdy as she was, and I leaned on them for strength and balance as my world shifted, as I began to reveal myself to others. Has there ever been a poem that better captures the liberation, the fear, the possibility embodied in coming out than “The Journey”? “One day you finally knew / what you had to do, and began…” That step, Oliver promised, would carry me “deeper and deeper / into the world” and would “save / the only life you could save.”

I would face rejection from a few, she told me in “The Uses of Sorrow.” I would be maimed, yet I would one day recover and thrive:
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
But she also signaled, in “Sometimes,” that I would be surprised at the acceptance of so many more:
Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Yet there were more lessons she sought to teach me. I had fallen in love with the man I would eventually marry, a fellow writer, and her words deepened our bond. We exchanged her poetry as gifts, tokens that carried messages of our values and devotion. “To pay attention, this is our endless / and proper work,” lines from her poem “Yes! No!”, became a call that has anchored us. Like nature, like the writing life, like words themselves, relationships required proper tending and care, or else they would wither.

But wilting—loss and death—will nevertheless one day come, she warned in the poem “In Blackwater Woods”:
You must be able
to do three things:
to hold what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Here, though, is where Oliver might have been wrong. Yes, we should learn to hold people and possessions loosely, for they are not ours in the end. But there are also notions that one cannot let go, things we carry inside us—like words and our relationship to them. And to their author. Now, in the wake of her death, I have other questions nestled inside me: How many people’s stories might have been different if not for the questions she embodied on the page? How many lives has she saved with her words?

I see them now, lives that speckle the 50-plus years of her career. Young people across the decades rejected by their families for being who they are. Patients in the AIDS wards of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Soldiers denied the right to serve their country. Couples applying for marriage licenses. Him and her and them, all simply seeking to use a bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. I imagine her words hovering above them like stardust—lines and images and mysteries that descend and seep in through their ears, mouths, and pores—offering courage, solace, revelation.

And armor. In our present moment, I find myself returning to her quiet assurances and lessons more than ever. They are a haven from what has been loosed in our culture: insults, hate speech, and demagoguery from people and politicians who devalue the beautiful potential of language while simultaneously harnessing its darkest powers. A president who negates the lives of transgender people to pacify his rabid base, a vice president who delights in insulting the existence of gays and lesbians.

What if those people read her? Perhaps they too might be cleansed, changed, by her poetry. An unlikely, naïve hope—for to be changed, one must first be open to the prospect. On my own journey, as I walked a “road full of fallen / branches and stones,” she helped me find a deeper, easier way of the spirit that is not shadowed by fear, that combines the beauty of faith and doubt in equal measure. I am stronger because of her, more open, more settled in myself, more willing to be vulnerable in person and on the page—all because I once asked myself this question, one I return to again and again: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

Image Credit: Max Pixel.

On Mary Oliver and Resisting Poems of Gladness

Last Thursday, the poet Mary Oliver died; by mid-afternoon, my social media feeds were flooded with friends mourning her passing and expressing gratitude for her work. These friends—many of them poets, but also a minister, a pianist, an 18th-century scholar—wrote eloquently of Oliver’s impact on their lives: how she’d taught them to pay attention, how she’d comforted them in hard times.

Reading the testimonials, I was moved, and sad for the loss of someone who seemed like a fascinating and kind person, but also—what was this unsettling emotion tucked beneath the other ones?—a little bit envious of these friends who’d had their lives enriched by Mary Oliver’s work. I’d never read Oliver, other than a few poems here and there. How had I missed her?

This question buzzed in the back of my mind as I scrolled through post after post, and then I began to realize: I’d never delved into Mary Oliver because I’d never let myself. Although I’d never really reckoned with why that was, I was familiar with the widespread critical dismissals of her work, like David Orr’s dig in The New York Times, in which he disparaged O Magazine’s profile of Oliver by writing “about [her] poetry one can only say that no animals appear to have been harmed in the making of it.” I knew that in my two decades of studying and writing poetry, no one—not a teacher, not a friend—had ever pressed a Mary Oliver book into my hands, saying, “You’ve got to read this.” I knew the air of condescension, or at least apology, that so often accompanied a mention of Oliver’s poems; at conferences, in grad school bars, if the conversation turned a certain way, someone might say, “Well, Mary Oliver has a poem—I know, I know—but—” and everyone would smile understandingly.

But if I’m being honest, I also had my own set of preconceptions. I knew that Mary Oliver’s poems were popular and beloved. I knew she wrote about celebrating nature. I knew she was considered “accessible.” I knew that her books were always well-stocked on the tiny, sad poetry shelf of every bookstore. I’m ashamed to say that these facts combined to make me wary, even though I also write about the natural world and think of my work as relatively “accessible” (though my books are not, alas, well-stocked in every bookstore), even though many of the poets whose work I most admire fall into one or more of these categories, and even though surely “beloved” is one of the best monikers any of us can hope to earn. I’d read some of Oliver’s individual poems, of course, and a decade ago when I was going through a period of intense anxiety and depression I came across her oft-quoted “Wild Geese” and felt an almost tangible sense of relief at its clear-eyed and compassionate opening lines, which tell the reader:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
        love what it loves.
Even now, typing those words, I’m comforted. Still, I’d never purchased one of her books, never checked one out from the library, never even gone poking around online for her greatest hits. As I read tribute after tribute, I prodded my vague guilt, trying to find its source—yes, I’d unfairly cut myself off from a poet I should have read, but surely this wasn’t the first time I’d missed out on important work. So what was it? Slowly, the deeper underlying worry began to pulse through: was it possible that, despite my best efforts to resist proscriptive poetry doctrines, somewhere along the line I’d internalized the unspoken tenet that accessible poems of praise and wonder are less worthy of real attention?

As a beginning poet, I was wary of anything that smacked even slightly of sentimentality. I learned it was safer to eschew the autobiographical, easier to polish up my dark imaginings until they gleamed. In those early years, what I wanted most was to protect myself from accusations of softness. And though my work became increasingly confident as I kept writing, it wasn’t until my most recent book, a poetry collection centering around a tornado that devastates a small town, that I began to understand it takes some bravery to risk being perceived as soft. That book includes a number of autobiographical poems about the raw intensity of motherhood, and several more written in praise of both the natural and domestic worlds; these were topics that I’d long understood to be dangerous ground. How easily a foot might slip from motherhood to mawkishness, from humming dusk to Hallmark card!

But those were the poems I wanted most to write, and I like to think they stayed on the right side of that tipping point between sentiment and sentimentality because, like any poem that hopes to represent an experience accurately, they paid attention. In writing them, I tried to be as honest and precise as I could. Another oft-quoted Mary Oliver sentence is this one: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” I love this line. It seems to me as good a directive for writing poems as for living life.

So I’d been feeling good about consciously shaking off reductive precepts about subject matter and approach. And I’d been happy, too, with my work to help my students become skeptical of voices that try to dictate what poetry shouldn’t do. For years I’ve taught that anything can be a ripe subject for poetry, and that poems aren’t limited to one tone or mood. Poems can be funny! I remind my students. Really good sincere love poems exist!

But the morning of the day that Mary Oliver died, one of my poetry students approached me after class and asked if I could recommend any poems that were…she hesitated…less bleak than the ones we’d been reading. She asked me this tentatively, as if she knew it wasn’t something a real writer should want or request, and I was flooded with teacher-guilt: had I, through the poems I emphasized and the ones I left out, inadvertently been teaching my students that poems of comfort and celebration were somehow less-than? I thought about the poems we’d explored so far this semester—all poems I love, all poems of great craft and skill…and all poems that dive into the world’s darkness and swim around. It isn’t that I don’t love and teach hopeful poems, too—but, I realized, by not teaching any in the crucial first few weeks of the semester, I had implied parameters in which I don’t believe. The student took out her phone to jot down notes, and quickly I recommended Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic. I recommended Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. I pointed her to Twitter, where the poet Chen Chen had recently started an excellent thread of “happy poem” recommendations. Then I went home to the news that a poet who had made her career out of observing and celebrating this world had left it.

I didn’t pay attention to Oliver’s work when she was alive, and that was my own failing, stemming from my own fear. Thinking about this over the past few days, I’ve resolved to incorporate more poems of wonder and solace into my teaching, and to work more consciously to show students that these subjects aren’t off-limits for writers; indeed, aren’t they so much of what we look for in the literature we love most? I’ll be sure, too, to emphasize that just because a poem embraces joy doesn’t mean it can’t also acknowledge suffering, and vice versa—an essential duality I’ve seen underscored again and again in the Mary Oliver poems being posted over the weekend. We’ll discuss the particular risks and challenges that might accompany writing poems that dwell in gladness; we’ll discuss, too, the much greater risk of writing as though poetry doesn’t belong in the business of celebration.

A few days ago, I ordered a copy of Mary Oliver’s Devotions: The Selected Poems from my local bookstore. Though they usually have her books in stock, the owner told me, people have been buying them up since learning of her passing. I’m looking forward to getting the book. I plan to read it slowly, after the kids go to bed, a few poems at a time. I plan to pay attention. When I’m done, I’ll lend it to my student.

Literary Obituaries of 2018: Let Us Now Praise the Under-Sung

We’re all aware of the big fish of the literary world who died in 2018—Ursula K. Le Guin, V.S. Naipul, Philip Roth, Anthony Bourdain, Tom Wolfe, Stan Lee, Neil Simon, Harlan Ellison and Amos Oz, to name a few. Let us now praise some of the under-sung literary figures who left us. They may have lacked the name recognition of the big fish, but they made rich contributions of their own and they deserve to find new generations of readers. Here, in chronological order of their deaths, is a highly selective list of a handful of these wonders, several of whom touched my life in deeply personal ways.

Nicholas von HoffmanWhile researching a nonfiction book about the 1970s, I became enamored of a now-forgotten media magazine called MORE, which was a showcase for the acidic journalism of Nicholas von Hoffman, who died on Feb. 1 at 88. The ’70s was a golden age of American journalism—and New Journalism—and von Hoffman was a sort of tarnished knight, always marching against the grain, always pissing people off, from his unlucky targets to his long-suffering bosses. He spent the 1967 Summer of Love in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, where he insisted on wearing a suit to interview hippies who were zonked out of their skulls on acid. He went on to write for newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, he wrote books and plays, even a libretto. He was famously fired by 60 Minutes during the Watergate fiasco for describing President Richard Nixon as “a dead mouse on the American family kitchen floor. The question is: Who is going to pick it up by the tail and drop it in the trash?” A question worth asking again today! Yet for all the furor he caused, von Hoffman had a refreshingly modest view of what he did for a living. “I think you’re mad if you come into journalism with the idea that you’re going to change things for the better,” he told an interviewer late in life. “I write because I enjoy it.”

William ProchnauBefore writing a novel built around the coup in Saigon in 1963, I immersed myself in the work of a dedicated band of young war correspondents who were telling a very different story from the rosy fantasy the Pentagon and the White House were pedaling about the early progress of the Vietnam War. While doing this research, I got an unexpected gift: a magisterial book called Once Upon a Distant War: Young War Correspondents and the Early Vietnam Battles by William Prochnau, who died on March 28 at 80. Himself a war correspondent for the Seattle Times, Prochnau told the story of his colleagues who brought down the wrath of Washington—and, in some cases, the wrath of their own bosses—for daring to tell battlefield truths they were seeing with their own eyes. Prochnau’s book is a portrait of one of American journalism’s finest hours, when Malcolm Browne, Peter Arnett, David Halberstam, Horst Faas, Charles Mohr, Neil Sheehan and other courageous correspondents were sounding the earliest alarms that the American misadventure was built on lies and doomed to fail. Their prescience and courage are worth remembering today, when Donald Trump repeatedly derides the press as “the enemy of the people.” As a New York Times reviewer said of Prochnau’s masterpiece: “When all was said and done, in Mr. Prochnau’s view, blaming the journalists was simply a case of shooting the messenger.”

Bobbie Louise HawkinsFor all their wild sad dramas in the spectral American night, the Beats were, with few exceptions, a great big moveable boys’ club. One woman who kicked down the club’s door was Carolyn Cassady, who was married to Jack Kerouac’s roadmate Neal Cassady and wrote about her life. Another was Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who died May 4 at 87. From an impoverished, book-drenched Texas childhood Hawkins joined the Beats’ orbit, spinning out more than 20 books of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and monologues. In 1978, Allen Ginsberg recruited her to join the faculty of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., where she taught until her retirement in 2010. All along, Hawkins refused to sit in the back seat while the boys did the driving. “People are absolutely willing to let a woman be a muse,” she said, “and that has to be the worst job description in the world. Being a muse means you sit someplace and watch this other person have all the fun.” Among her other achievements was to walk away from an 18-year marriage to the venerable poet Robert Creeley, who dismissed her writerly ambitions. She claimed he tried to convince she was “too married, too old and too late” to make it as a writer on her own. “But,” she added triumphantly after the divorce and the flowering of her career, “he was wrong.”

Elaine MarksonFew writers forget their first literary agent. Elaine Markson, who died on May 21 at 87, was mine. She was the first person in New York to say she believed my writing had the potential to make money, the one thing every writer must hear if he or she is going to continue doing the work. Elaine’s belief meant the world to me—and, I have been told, to the rest of her clients. She was among the first women to own a literary agency, and she became known for promoting feminist authors, though her roster of clients was eclectic. At various times it included Grace Paley, Alice Hoffman, Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey, and her husband, the experimental novelist David Markson. After Elaine’s death, Hoffman wrote on LitHub: “I was Elaine’s second client. I was a nothing kid from New York, living a hippie student life in California, but to her I was a novelist. Considering Elaine’s faith and confidence, what choice did I have? I came to believe it, too.” And so, thanks to Elaine Markson, did I.

Tom ClarkOne of the unlikeliest pairings in the history of American literature had to be the collaboration between the high-minded poet Tom Clark and the Detroit Tigers’ eccentric pitcher Mark “the Bird” Fidrych, who worked together to produce a book about the pitcher’s sensational but short-lived career called No Big Deal. Then again, maybe it wasn’t all that unlikely. Clark, who died on Aug. 18 at 77, was a serious baseball fan who once said that “the best poems and the best baseball games share a dramatic tension you can’t find in very many other places.” And Fidrych was deliciously nuts. “I’m supposed to be writing a book,” he joked to Sports Illustrated, “and I can hardly read.

But that book was a small piece of Clark’s output. He wrote two dozen books of spare unfussy poetry; biographies of several poets, including Robert Creeley (see the Bobbie Louise Hawkins obit above); a biography of Jack Kerouac. Clark was also a revered teacher, and one of his own teachers, the poet Donald Hall (who died in June of 2018), called Clark “the best student I ever had.” To round out his résumé, Clark served as poetry editor of The Paris Review and once hitchhiked across England with Allen Ginsberg. Much can be gleaned from the admonitions in three spare lines of Clark’s poetry:

Be kind to animals no matter whatListen to the angelTry to look upon death as a friend

Thad MumfordAt a time when nearly all network television writers were white, Thad Mumford crossed the color barrier. Mumford, who died Sept. 6 at 67, started out as a page at NBC while in college, sold jokes on the side to Johnny Carson, and went on to become an Emmy Award-winning writer and producer for shows like M*A*S*H to The Cosby Show, Sesame Street, NYPD Blue, That’s My Mama! and Maude.

Mumford was also hired to write for the ABC mini-series Roots: The Next Generation, a follow-up to Alex Haley’s blockbuster book and TV series. Mumford hoped to work with his long-time collaborator, Don Wilcox, who is white. But the producers fretted, in Mumford’s telling, that having Wilcox on staff would be seen as politically incorrect. Wilcox was willing to forego the on-screen credit and split the money, but Mumford insisted that both writers’ names appear on the credits, and wound up carrying the day. In a later interview, Wilcox called Mumford’s insistence “the bravest thing I ever saw a human being do.” Mumford had a simpler word for it. He called it “decency.”

Ntozake ShangeShe was born Paulette Williams in Trenton, N.J., but when she died on Oct. 27 at 70 she was universally known by her adopted Zulu moniker, Ntozake Shange. She will be remembered primarily for her incendiary, earth-shaking play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, an astonishing performance for seven black female characters dressed in the colors of the rainbow as they deliver scorching monologues on trauma and abuse. The play started downtown before moving to the Public Theater, then Broadway, then PBS and finally became a star-studded film directed by Tyler Perry. No one who saw it will forget it; but not everyone loved it. As Shange said of the uproar surrounding the play’s original run: “I was truly dumbfounded that I was right then and there deemed the biggest threat to black men since cotton pickin’, and not all the women were in my corner, either.”

Shange was no one-hit wonder. She produced 15 plays, 19 poetry collections, six novels, five children’s books and three essay collections. While all women were not in her corner, many were. Shange became an inspiration to a new generation of female African American playwrights, including the MacArthur fellow Dominique Morisseau, the Pulitzer Prize winners Lynn Nottage and Suzan Lori-Parks, and Anna Deveare Smith, who said of Shange: “She ran her mouth… And even if people thought it was an indictment of men or an indictment of white people, what she brought with her was an incredible love of human beings.”

Jerry ChesnutNo list of literary obituaries would be complete without at least one songwriter. Last year it was Gregg Allman, and this year it’s Jerry Chesnut, who grew up poor in the Kentucky coal fields and went on to write songs recorded by more than 100 artists, including both Elvii—Presley and Costello. Few writers in any genre of pop music have written more bitingly about heartache than Chesnut, who died Dec. 15 at 87. But he also wrote songs about other facets of blue-collar life, including factory workers and truck drivers and a bereft soul who feeds his last dime into a jukebox.

Chesnut’s greatest song might be “A
Good Year for the Roses,” a country hit for George Jones later covered by the
punk star Elvis Costello. It’s told by a man watching his love pack up and

I can hardly bear the sight of lipstick on the cigarettes there in the ashtrayLyin’ cold like you left them,But at least your lips caressed them while you packed.Or the lip print on the half-filled cup of coffeeThat you poured and didn’t drink,At least your thought you wanted it,That’s so much more than I can say for me.

Late in life, Chesnut admitted that he had never heard of Elvis Costello before the song appeared on his Almost Blue album. But when a $60,000 royalty check arrived from the British Isles, Chesnut allowed, “Punk rock? That may be what I am!”

Rest in peace, all of you—the big,
the obscure, the brilliant and the under-sung. Through your words you will live

Remembering Shiva Naipaul

His books are long out of print, basically forgotten. And when they were current, his last name always overshadowed his first. But contemporary readers fortunate enough to spend time with Shiva Naipaul, the late younger brother of Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul, will find the former a true original, perhaps the great lost author of the 1970s. “My choice of career must seem like an exercise in masochism,” he admits in the essay “My Brother and I”:
The paradox is this: I was doing anything but following in my brother’s footsteps when I started to write. Rather, I had taken the first step on the road to independence, to the autonomy that had always been denied me.
A dozen years younger than his celebrated sibling, Shiva Naipaul travelled a remarkably similar route, progressing from childhood in Trinidad to a scholarship at Oxford and eventually, pursuit of the writer’s life in London. Adding to the confusion, the subject matter of his books is, at first glance, remarkably similar to his brother’s, even patently Naipaulian.

Two rich tragicomic novels set in his native island, Fireflies and The Chip-Chip Gatherers, garnered awards for Shiva Naipaul upon publication in the early ’70s—as well as inevitable comparisons to his brother’s first masterpiece A House for Mr. Biswas. For all their surface similarities to Sir Vidia’s early work, however, the younger Naipaul’s family sagas cast a more humane look upon the extended Indian immigrant clans settled in Trinidad, incorporating rounded, complete female characters and their points of view. Modern concepts of education and ambition bump up against old-world traditions in Shiva Naipaul’s Indo-Trinidadian characters, mixing and mingling in unpredictable, volatile ratios.

While her neighbors consider Baby Luchtman, the resilient heroine of Fireflies, to be “too big for she boots,” it’s her uncle, the failed patriarch turned political wanna-be Govind Khoja, who skewers himself with ludicrous ambition:
Deprived of his authority at the head of the family, he was like a fish out of water, breathing in the noxious air of rebellion and insult. Unhappily, in the years since his mother’s death, this is exactly what had happened. Thus, since he was to be debarred henceforth from playing the guru to his own family, he would be guru to the people at large. The purveyor of an incomprehensible doctrine on education could not be challenged or called to account: the masses could only listen, be mystified and obey. So at any rate, Mr. Khoja believed.
Turning to narrative nonfiction after The Chip-Chip Gatherers came out in 1973, Naipaul invited further comparisons to his brother’s work by documenting a six-month trip through Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia in North of South: An African Journey (1978). Split between sharply observant travel writing and acidic political interpretation, North of South may work better as opinionated long-form journalism than objective history: It’s slightly anachronistic, and often problematic if judged by current standards. Once—or if—you get past his use of the word “primitive,” Naipaul expresses, and in fact demands, respect for indigenous cultures while unblinkingly documenting the complexities of postcolonial life, confronting the condescending white settlers and decrying their racism.

His next book is arguably Shiva Naipaul’s nonfiction apotheosis, and his personal Waterloo. Journey to Nowhere (titled Black and White in the U.K.) places the author in Guyana just days after the Jonestown mass suicides. Struggling to make sense of the senseless, Naipaul provides context and finally, insight into this still-inexplicable nightmare. The most recent account of the tragedy, Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple (2017), is far more thoroughly researched yet nevertheless pales in comparison to Naipaul’s fitful exploration. Tracing Jim Jones’s strange trip back to his ostensibly progressive roots in the Bay Area, Naipaul indulges in a touch of cliched California-bashing before unearthing the horrible and half-hidden truth about the cult leader:
Deep racial terror was mercilessly exposed and exploited in the People’s Temple. Jones stripped bare his following and left them naked and defenseless. He did not liberate; he assaulted and traumatized those who believed in him. Once can sense at a certain level his raging hatred for the blacks whose God he claimed to be; a hatred so deep-seated, so tormenting that, it its fury, it turned itself inside out and called itself Love.
Returning to fiction with Love in a Hot Country (1983), Shiva Naipaul portrays star-crossed lives in a corrupt and ravaged Caribbean nation after the revolution. His voice and vision are decidedly bleaker here yet no less compelling than in the previous novels. A stunning collection of essays and short stories titled Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth appeared in 1985—the same year Shiva Naipaul died suddenly of a heart attack at age 40. In the introduction to the posthumous collection An Unfinished Journey (1987), Naipaul’s father-in law Douglas Stuart recalls asking him about a return to the comic vein of his initial fiction. Naipaul replied: “How can I? I have walked over the bodies at Jonestown.” But he was far from exhausted. “Beyond The Dragon’s Mouth,” an autobiographical essay first published in 1984, relays the depth, and fortitude, of his inspiration:
I grew up in a no-man’s land. Suburban life with its ease and unrelenting worship of American standards, American ideals, had not existed when I was a boy. Its assumptions and prejudices were unfamiliar to me. If I was like a fish out of water at a Hindu rite, I was no less a fish out of water at a drive-in cinema with the vapors of hot dogs and hamburgers. Such definition as I do now posses has its roots in nothing other than personal exigency. Every day, I have to redefine myself.
In his abbreviated oeuvre, Shiva Naipaul conducts a restless search to comprehend the world at large, and himself. Whatever his further journeys, both real and imagined, might have revealed, he left us plenty to unpack.

Leonard Cohen and Zen

1. Meeting Leonard

I met Leonard Cohen—then a Zen monk—on a dirt road in the San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles at the edge of the Mojave Desert. From the main road to the Master’s quarters was a gravelly avenue, dusty in the summer, shaded in parts by 100-year-old sugar pines that leaned high, toward each other, and seemed to whisper amongst themselves. Manzanita shrubs scaled the gentle climb of the mountain above and below the rocky drive. And occasionally a pickup truck or SUV would zip through the narrow way, driven by an ardent monk with an important sense of purpose: to, say, deliver asphalt shingles from Home Depot so that we could hammer them without delay to the hot tar-papered roof of the meditation hall, which we called by its Japanese name, the zendo.

At the top of the road, I was walking with Andy, a bedraggled, long-haired, bearded, red-headed fellow initiate—more of a comrade than a friend—who ran about the Zen Center in the manner of his Chinese astrology sign, explosively, like a rabbit. I felt a car approaching and tensed. But quite unusually, the car slowed to a roll that met our walking pace. The engine quieted, and almost stopped. My body began to relax.

Making its way past us, the Nissan Pathfinder’s window came down. The driver revealed his face, and spoke in a tired, dulcet voice, “Excuse me, friends.” It was Leonard. And then he pulled forward, leaving the gravel, dirt, and pedestrians unperturbed.

2. The Flame

Since then, Leonard—his body—has passed. No more live concerts. No new songs, or poems, except those that might be posthumously published by his estate. His son, Adam Cohen, has now assembled and anointed The Flame. The Flame is a book whose completion Adam tells us was his father’s “sole breathing purpose at the end.” It was a project for which Leonard “renewed his commitment to rigorous meditation so as to focus his mind through the acute pain of multiple compression fractures and the weakening of his body.”

Leonard died on Nov. 7, 2016. And I agree with Adam when he writes, “It feels darker now, but the flame was not killed. Each page of paper that he blackened was lasting evidence of a burning soul.”

3. Invoking the Realm of Chivalry

Aside from his manners and his suits, Leonard invoked the realm of chivalry and romance, such as when—in a dining hall with fold-up tables and a flaking linoleum floor, in honor of his Zen Master Roshi’s 35th anniversary of teaching in America—he presented a wooden, silk-lined box of perfectly stacked rows of gold coins, generous in amount. The gift, offered with an over-dramatic speech about how the Master (who is now dead) had prevented a monk’s suicide, invoked the atmosphere of ancient song—like an offering at Solomon’s temple.

And this seemed to be Leonard’s way. He transformed the world into his image of it. And those of us who were around when he did so were brought into a land of ancient poetic lore. It was fun to be transposed by his projections into a universe that seemed deeper—or at least more merry, rich and imaginative—than ours.

Leonard augmented the atmosphere with an almost histrionic, celebratory air. He was resolute in wanting to avoid a dissolution into mundane lifelessness. He was vigilantly aware of the “great inevitable defeat that awaits us all,” and he wished to express this awareness “within the strict confines of dignity and beauty.” I’m pretty sure that Roshi was aware of Leonard’s effect, and certainly proud—one might even say boastful at times— to have the celebrity by his side. He used the poet for his own enterprise, and often to great effect, as did we all in our own little ways.

4. A Relationship in Silence

Leonard was gracious, and he let us use him. He let us feel good about ourselves by being friendly enough to us to allow us to say of him that he—Leonard Cohen—was our friend. And yet one never knew where he stood. He seemed nice enough. One felt close to him, but then we’d pull his Book of Longing from the shelf at Borders Books in Montclair Plaza beside Interstate 10 and read of his time among us:
I was known as a Monk
I shaved my head and wore robes
and got up very early
I hated everyone
but I acted generously
and no one found me out
He was very kind to me. Upon graduation from my training I started a temple in San Francisco. It was a meager affair, but warm and sincere, made so by its dear attendees. And to support this gathering Leonard contributed a significant regular donation, without my having asked. Unsolicited, there arrived in the mail a purple card with the picture of a Spanish-looking guitar—very much like the one on Page 269 of The Flame. In the card was a check signed, “Leonard Cohen.” And every month thereafter, another donation arrived. I thanked, him, of course. My benefactor. I recall a moment when we dressed together, putting on our monk-robes for a formal talk by the Master, and he said, as if we were about to be inducted by a cult, “They’ll never get us.” He was implying by this, I think, that though we fled as refugees from American culture, because it degraded our standards of beauty and life, we would not—in turning to a Zen Buddhist alternative with powerful rituals and traditions—be taken in by another.

But if Leonard let us take of his graciousness, he took of us. He drew inspiration from the world he created, but he needed us to create it—to nourish his G-d (as he always wrote it), his Spirit of Song—which, I believe, is what he truly worshipped. I think—and not in a bad way—that in a culture as broken and empty of meaning as ours, Leonard sought to cobble together a secular poetic religion. Such a thing demanded spaces in which his thoughts could live. The physical, worldly connections to his teacher, to us, and his fans allowed him to realize, incarnate and serve what he lived for: the Lord of Song.

And this is one of the reasons that I think we love him—not for the excellence of his poems—but for his valiant effort to preserve through his imagination the importance of inner life, and the sources from which meaning and kindness are born. In this sense, his struggle and longing serve as a kind of heuristic device, a form of self-compassion that grants us permission to reflect on ourselves—on our solitary situations (our failures and our brokenness)—alone, together. Leonard was a Pop Prophet, and we love him for that—for honoring, respecting, enjoying and understanding life enough to keep The Flame alive.

5. Leonard’s Effect on the Princess of Spain

My favorite piece in the book is Leonard’s thank you speech to Spain, the “Acceptance Address for the Prince of Asturias Award.” There is a line in that speech in which he tells us of the time he lifted his Conde guitar, light as helium, from its case. “I brought it to my face. I put my face close to the beautifully designed rosette, and I inhaled the fragrance of the living wood.” He was gracious, noble, a master of charm. And I think he knew it. But if he was a seducer, it seems to me that he worked to seduce us back to ourselves—to life and to living, to the creaturely meaning of our life, so that we might express thanks for it—and, in the spirit of surrender, mercy to G-d for his cruelty (for knowing that we ourselves can be as cruel, and to underscore the fact that however bleak our life may be, at the very least it’s life, and that as long as we have it, it’s our life, however small it may seem compared to the hugeness of time). All this while pointing us to the recognition that one of the great redeeming things we hold in our power, which allows us to rebel against our end, is our capacity for friendship.

6. The Greedy Monk in Our Midst

I recall standing next to him, gathered for a group photograph after a Buddhist ceremony in L.A., happy to be there with Jikan—as Leonard was called by the “Zens”—as a person who had showed me so many small kindnesses in the midst of a challenging career. But as this joy settled in, a monk who prided himself on writing and who had written two poor (in my opinion) books about life as a monk quietly pressed his angry body against mine, to shove me off balance so that I might lose my spot beside Leonard for him to take. I found out later that Leonard wrote an introduction to one of this monk’s books. Leonard gave endlessly, and, one felt, indiscriminately, kindly, and generously. I was not thrown off balance, physically—but I was surprised by the monk’s behavior. Since then, it turns out, he seems to have abandoned his monastic calling, having used—maybe as Leonard had—Buddhism as a ruse, and as a source, for secular content.

7. Leonard’s Gift: Modesty, Majesty, and Love

As it’s come to America, Buddhism has been cheapened. Psychologized, romanticized, popularized. If Leonard’s imagination was anemic in its ability to generate true religious content, it was nonetheless kind. And in the end, I think it is the spirit of his kindness that we’ll keep. Leonard’s attitude, his values, his vulnerability, and his seemingly sincere desire for humanitarian agreement, peace, decency, healing and connection are his legacy. And if that is what he provided as a voice, it’s a voice I believe we need, and one, maybe, that sings us in the right direction. A spiritual stem cell, perhaps, still to be developed in its various forms—but in the direction of gracious modesty, majesty, and love.

Thank you for your care, Leonard. And thank you for L. Cohen—our friend.

Image: Flickr/Bill Strain

What I Saw When I Really Looked: My Late Brother, Heroin, and Grief

When the tomatoes were ripe, when my closet was eager with crisp shirts and clean sneakers, when I had jumped off of a high swing and was lying in the grass listening to mourning doves and lawn mowers—that’s when the hot air balloons came.

One of the children on the cul-de-sac would spot it first. He’d point and run from yard to yard as the stripes of orange, yellow, purple, and red silently descended. Fathers turned off their mowers. Mothers snuffed their cooking flames and poured wine. The children sprinted while the grown ups walked through one another’s yards to the place where the wicker basket seemed to lean, and we waited, staring upward and waving.

The balloon dipped gently and clumsily. Sometimes it glided to another neighbor’s yard, and we followed its path—20 of us in cutoffs and summer dresses. Its burners coughed fire, and when the balloon got close, the fire was loud. When it touched down, the fathers ran to it, grabbing hold of the wicker and wires, their weight too light to keep the basket from skidding through the sweet grass.

The balloons came because we had big yards. They came because we were lucky. To the family who owned the yard, the pilot presented a bottle of champagne. Then he tipped the basket on its side, and we watched as the balloon billowed, breathing like a jellyfish, and swooned to the ground.

I like to think this happened often each summer—that there was a hot air balloon season, that they descended as assuredly as summer storms. Maybe it only happened three times in my life. My vision of the event—the abundance, the gauzy repose, the family intact, with mother and father performing their various duties and the children swinging safely in the yard—exposes the particular awe that leavens my memory of suburban childhood. As I remember it, we really were that lucky.

I don’t remember whether my big brother came running with the neighbor boys. Where was he then, and what did he see? Maybe Joe was at the stream behind the houses, studying the antennae of crayfish. Maybe he was melting slugs beneath salt. Maybe he was already 14, on the train tracks with Sam, whose thumb was torn from trying to open a beer bottle on a rock. Maybe he was laughing and scared as his friend bled onto the rails. Or was he looking up, following the bright descent through the evening light?

In literary study, we talk about vision. How does the narrator see the world? we ask. To what does she draw the reader’s eye? To evaluate a text, my professor used to ask, “Do you want to continue seeing the world with this person?”

Joe and I saw the world differently. We diverged in what we noticed, what we remembered, and how we interpreted the images in view. I suspect he wouldn’t have clung to the balloons lilting over the gardens the way I have, for they wouldn’t suit his vision. Conversely, I chose to look away from the images on which he focused—first, the withering slugs; later, the warehouse parties, the needles in his skin.

When he died, one humid afternoon in my mother’s living room, my vision of the world was altered.

“Something is the matter with the sunsets.”

Mary Cabot writes this in her diary in the 1868 epistolary novel The Gates Ajar. One week has passed since she learned that her brother has died at war. “Something is the matter with the sunsets,” she laments; “they come and go and I do not notice them. Something ails the voices of children, snowballing down the street; all the music has gone out of them.”

I read The Gates Ajar after Joe had died, just 32 and overcome in his own quiet war. Written by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Gates was one of the two most widely sold religious novels of the 19th century. It’s the diary of a young woman bereaved three times over: Her mother died when she was a child, and her father died in her adolescence, leaving Mary and her brother Roy to care for one another. Mary is 24 when Roy is killed, and sorrow changes her vision of the world.

“The lazy winds are choking me,” she writes, “Their faint sweetness makes me sick.” “The great maple, just reaching up to tap at the window, blazes and bows under its weight of scarlet blossoms. I cannot bear their perfume.”

Like all of us, Mary possesses a particular vision of the world. She is a person who notices winds and scarlet blossoms. She notices sunsets. As a narrator, she turns our faces so that we see what she sees. She doesn’t point us to steel stacks, or bacon grease, or cadavers, because, though these things may cross her line of sight, they do not stay with her. They do not compose her vision of the world.

After Roy dies, Mary can’t bear the beauty that she once may have loved to behold. She thinks of an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem and reflects, “It is easy to understand how Bianca heard ‘The nightingales sing through her head,’ how she could call them ‘Owl-like birds,’ who sang ‘for spite,’ who sang ‘for hate,’ who sang ‘for doom.’”

Browning and Phelps both use a literary device that, early in the next century, T.S. Eliot would popularize with the phrase objective correlative. This is Eliot’s name for the way that a writer can express a character’s emotional state by projecting that emotion onto objects in the character’s view. In the essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” Eliot writes, “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” Are the moonflowers spectral or lustrous? Is the wisteria weeping or in repose? Each tells you something different about the state of mind of the speaker.

Mary Cabot’s diary reads, “I hate the bluebirds flashing in and out of the carmine cloud that the maple makes, and singing, singing everywhere …Most of all I hate the maple.”

In my 20s, my frame of vision held long dinner tables lined with lavender shoots, gifts wrapped in twine, and the glad faces of friends, which I studied as I flipped again and again through photos, reliving the weekend. My vision was filled with living rooms of people singing along to a folk song, and bars where my friends’ band played and the rest of us danced. In my range of view: Philadelphia cobblestone. Nasturtium spilling from window boxes. The glittering face of Lake George in summer. Sunflowers in wedding bouquets, and a dozen faces singing, “For he’s a jolly good fellow” at birthdays over wine-soaked dinners. My temple pressed against my husband’s cheek, my eyelashes tracing his skin like a moth’s wing.

If perception was a camera, I captured what I found beautiful, and shaped a moral understanding of the world based on these scenes. The world I saw was loving and abundant, and surprises were good, coming from the sky like hot air balloons.

Outside of the frame: Philly blocks laden with trash and cracked concrete. Films about drugs: Pulp Fiction and Blow. Dirty politics and foreign wars. I chose not to look at these, and the glimpses that I did see did not penetrate my expectation that overall, things were good, and getting better.

Also outside of the frame: My own brother’s work DJing late-night parties in North Philly warehouses—he invited me now and then and I didn’t go. The art Joe liked: Berlin producers and sinister cartoons. The drugs he used: meth, ecstasy, and the heroin that killed him.

Like most addicts, Joe didn’t want his drug use to be seen. He expertly kept it out of sight. I have come to understand that my seeing it likely wouldn’t have changed its impact. But I wonder: How would our relationship have been different if, while he lived, I had really seen my brother? What if I had welcomed his vision of the world into my own?

“While you were watching Seventh Heaven, Joe was watching the X-Files,” my mother remembers. He was drawn to the extraterrestrial, the apocalyptic, the digital. He loved the game Doom and the late-night History Channel feature Ancient Aliens. His vision was full of scenarios in which people had to protect themselves from impending harm. The moral implication of this vision was that self-preservation was more expedient than love—a conviction he’d insist upon as an adult, in the same breath with which he’d call me sentimental.

Joe’s vision was crowded with scenes like this:

In his early 20s, the yard of his row home backed up to the yard of a church. There was a big freezer in that yard full of frozen turkeys. More than once, he climbed the fence at night to steal those turkeys, rock hard and heavy. He and his roommate thawed the birds and basted their cold, pale skins with oil and Sriracha and threw a Friendsgiving.

With this roommate he spent hours in front of computer screens, his eyes pooling with purple light as he stared at the knobs and columns of production software, beats scattered across the screen like morse code. Then they were out performing the tracks they’d produced, watching the dance floor swell and sigh as the parties exhaled into the fog of morning.

Joe loved to watch the purity of expression on the dance floor. He made music because he was addicted to the technical precision required to make a complex track, but also because his music gave people the freedom to let loose, to move, to hide or to be seen, luminous and transfigured among the other swaying bodies.

The desire for a luminous body, a free body, must have coursed like a drug through his own body, bound and distressed as it was by its vices.

Years before, when we were teenagers in the same house, I noticed that the bathroom often smelled like vomit. I didn’t ask about this; already he’d begun using drugs, and my love was so tightly entwined with my disappointment that I knew my concern would be heard as critique. After he died, I read that most heroin users vomit almost immediately after the drug hits their system, sometimes repeatedly. Also after he died, I found a journal entry my father had written during Joe’s late teenaged years:
Again, I found a little pile of vomit in the basement office, in a Tupperware container in the closet. I’ve found these piles before, on the carpet, or crusted in the grass behind the shed.

What is wrong with my son? What failure along the way rendered him unable to care for himself? His failure? My own?
My father saw what I chose not to see: So often, Joe’s frame of vision was filled with little piles of his own food, eaten and expelled from his thin, pale frame.

When Joe looked in the mirror, he saw rotted teeth. For years, I thought this resulted from the cigarettes he smoked. After he died, I read about meth mouth, caused by the acidity of the drug and the dry mouth, teeth-grinding, and sugar cravings common among users. I winced as I scrolled through a hundred images to see if the mouths pictured looked like Joe’s. Most were more severe, blackened and corroded to nubs. But some looked just like his: yellowed and truncated, as if two millimeters had been razed off the bottoms.

Joe went to rehab when he was 22, and when he finished, he got beautiful new teeth. He had a job in marketing. He had dental insurance. He had a healthy, bright smile which he began to offer more generously, and which I liked to look at. From then on, I thought he was clean of hard drugs. When he relapsed, I didn’t allow his drug use to be part of my vision. When, in the nine years that followed, he presented signs of use—when he was groggy midday, and irritable; when his pupils eclipsed the blue in his eyes—I didn’t ask questions. I was afraid to seem accusing, and to rupture whatever rapport we were developing. I didn’t know enough about the habits of addicts to be sure I was seeing the signs. Perhaps I didn’t want my suspicions proved; what would I do with the truth in view?

The winter before he died, my mother sent me a photo of Joe’s heel. It was swollen up through the ankle, pale and bitten with tiny scabs. “Taking Joe to the ER to have his foot checked,” she wrote. I shuddered and wrote back, “Yikes.” The doctor diagnosed it as cellulitis, a common bacterial infection. After Joe died, my mother and I read that some heroin users shoot up into their feet to hide the marks. Cellulitis is common among addicts who use needles. “That’s when we really started to worry about him,” Joe’s friend told us that summer. “When he started using needles.” Meanwhile, I had been blind, and was blindsided.

“It seems to me as if the world were spinning around in the light and wind and laughter,” writes Mary Cabot, “and God just stretched down His hand one morning and put it out.” Grief has a way of dimming the lights, and draining the sunrise of its color.

“The days usually look so long and blank at the beginning, that I can hardly make up my mind to step out into them,” writes Mary. She sees blank days; she hears “the dull music of the rain.” Where she might have seen abundance, she now sees violence: “a cold wind was bruising the apple-buds.”

According to the logic of the objective correlative, our emotions inform what we see and how we see it: “Something is the matter with the sunsets.” In bereavement, I learned that what I see also informs my emotions, shaping my expectations and my moral understanding of the world. This is vision’s feedback loop. Sometimes it needs to be interrupted.

The morning after Joe died, my cousins brought croissants from our family’s favorite bakery, a French-Vietnamese patisserie in South Philly. When I finally woke and descended the bewildering staircase, I reached into the paper bag and tore a quarter of an almond croissant. It was the perfect croissant—sweet, brittle at the corners and otherwise tender, buttered between layers so that each could be peeled and savored. I took one bite. I knew then that it would be a long time before I could eat food like this, its beauty incongruous with our stark and gruesome loss.

It didn’t make sense to eat croissants. It didn’t make sense to drink summer cocktails, or to wear lace sundresses, or to laugh. Croissants were brittle, cocktails bitter, and lace was full of holes. Laughter was an incision in my gut, foreign and cold. Holding a newborn, touching his puckered chin in the hospital the day after a friend’s labor, only reminded me of all that my mother had lost.

It made sense only to behold my brother. We gathered photographs for his funeral. We folded and unfolded his clothing, studying his style. We listened to his music. We spoke to his friends. They came to my mother’s house or met her downtown for coffee. They told her how they loved his big goofy grin; they told her what they knew about his drug use. We asked them questions, and we read and read and learned all that we could about how to buy heroin, how to use it, its impact on the body. It took 16 weeks for the Philadelphia Medical Examiner to report that heroin, fentanyl, and amphetamines had been in his system when he died. While we waited, Mom and I lined up each piece of evidence to make sense of his death—the vomit on the couch behind his slouched body, the phone log reporting a quick visit to a friend around noon, the empty baggies in his wallet. We watched videos of people using heroin. We read about the opioid crisis in Philly’s Kensington neighborhood, about the needles that littered the sidewalks and stoops. I scrolled four months back in the log of messages from my mother to find the image of Joe’s swollen heel. I winced, and fixed my gaze.

My husband wondered when I’d stop reading addiction memoirs, and when I’d stop the late-night phone calls with Joe’s friends. It was morose to dwell on these stories, he worried. But it was what I needed. To look upon my brother’s life, to see what he saw, was an impulse of love, come too late. It was all I could do to connect with Joe, to understand him, to say “I see you” now that he’d vanished. Looking upon his life and death, I came to see what he may have seen: That surprise can come not like a lit balloon but like a wildfire. That entropy, and not abundance, is physical law.

The Gates Ajar is a book about the slow rise of hope on a bleak horizon. Mary is inconsolable after learning of her brother’s death. Soon, she receives a visit from her Aunt Winifred, a young widow, already gray, who has thought very much about death. At Winifred’s arrival, Mary remarks, “A little arrow of light has just cut the gray gloom of the West.” The women pass hours over a summer talking about Roy, wondering with increasing hope about life after death. As their conversation progresses, Mary is able again to bear the sight and sound and smell of beauty. She hears the chatter of children “chiming down the hall like bells.” The wind, which had choked her, now sweeps “like somebody’s strong arms over the flowers, and gathers up a crowd of perfumes that wander up and down” around her. Not only can she tolerate laughter, she can see it, as Winifred’s daughter laughs out “like the splash of a little wave.”

It is hope in the transfigured body that changes Mary’s vision. At first, she’s terrified that she’ll never see her brother again. But Winifred speaks of heaven in a way Mary’s never heard before. She quotes Saint Paul, saying that the human body, once dead, is “‘raised in incorruption.’ ‘It is raised in glory.’ ‘It is raised in power.’” Rather than picturing an afterlife in which people are unrecognizable wisps of spirit, these women imagine that the dead indwell the very bodies they bore in their lives, only luminous, healed, “free from all the distortion of guilt.” With this vision, Mary believes that one day she will embrace her brother again.

One mystery of transfiguration perplexes Mary: Even in their radiance, these bodies as Winifred imagines them do not lack the scars of their lifetime. Free of pain, their skin remembers pain.

“Why remember it?” Mary wonders.

“Save but to swell the sense of being blest,” Winifred answers. “Besides, forgetfulness of the disagreeable things of this life implies forgetfulness of the pleasant ones. They are all tangled together.”

Two years have passed since I held Joe’s cold hands in my mother’s living room. The dim days of grief have passed. Again, I can laugh. Again, I can peel the buttery layers of a pastry and savor each ribbon on my tongue. But croissants will always remind me of the morning after Joe died. A Negroni with peeled orange curling over the rim will take me to the summer that I couldn’t drink, when drinking was too celebratory a gesture for so solemn a season. I can bear to see beauty, to taste and to smell it, but it’s tangled now with a realistic burden of the pain that my brother bore—that many around me bear still. When Joe died, an old way of seeing needed to be put to death. In time, a new way of seeing would arise, transfigured. Joe’s vision carried within my own, I sense I am closer to the molten center of reality, and already I feel I am being transformed.

Image: Flickr/Rusty Clark

Reading Vonnegut to Cope with Death

I received the call late on a Saturday night. I live in Europe, far from my home in the U.S., so receiving a call from my mother at 10 p.m. my time (1 p.m. her time) was never unusual. But when the tone of her voice on the other line was a distinct “Hi,” choking the usual sing-songy enthusiasm to follow, I felt a lump in my throat. “They found your dad,” she said, “He’s gone.” I then immediately collapsed into my wife’s arms.

After a night of sobbing and pacing, I managed to fall asleep. The next day, I found odd ways to cope: I rewatched funny YouTube videos in order to escape from reality. I watched old detective shows that would normally keep my mind occupied and soothe my anxieties. Following a few messy, stumbling phone calls from friends and family, I found myself unable to carry my own bones through this particular loss.

I don’t have a religion or god to fall back on. I turned my back on that as a teenager, and ever since, I’ve managed so far to find peace in music, poetry, and philosophy. Metaphors about death and grief are a dime a dozen; you’ll find plenty of words that are, as I discovered, virtually helpful to no one—“all that lives must die” (Shakespeare), or “death doesn’t change us more than life” (Dickens). Once I found myself confronting the complexity of grief, tepid words from my literary heroes didn’t seem to do the heavy lifting I originally hoped for.

Another famous literary phrase that comes to mind when we think of death is “So it goes.” This is, of course, the quasi-absurdist response found in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, given after every instance of death in the novel (a novel about World War II, so you can imagine it happens quite a lot). Although this phrase is hardly a comfort, it bespeaks the way I had always approached death—sometimes scratching my head, sometimes with cynicism, and sometimes with a shrug.

What happened during the grieving period wasn’t so much answer-seeking. I wasn’t cursing the heavens, kneeling in the dust and beating my breast, asking, “Why, God, why?” Instead, I found myself wondering how I could simply exist comfortably anymore. How can I act kindly toward others, when I felt nothing but anger? How can I avoid blaming the world and the people around him for taking him away from me?

I then remembered what Vonnegut once said to a group of students at Case Western Reserve University. After asking what life is all about, he delivers the answer: “We are here to help each other get through this thing … whatever it is.” This short phrase seemed to solidify for me something I was missing: a philosophy of life that, in its lightness and simplicity, told me exactly what I ached for during the grieving period and epitomized the type of person I should aspire to be. This echoes, as well, the beautiful phrase Malachi Constant utters in The Sirens of Titan: “The true purpose of life, no matter who is in control, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

It’s no secret that Vonnegut was not religious. A self-described humanist, Vonnegut became the American Humanist Association’s honorary president in the early ’90s, succeeding Isaac Asimov in what he described as a “completely functionless capacity.” In the short text God Bless You Doctor Kevorkian, originally read as a radio broadcast, he says, “I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.” Vonnegut, though, didn’t seem to have the acute hostility toward religion that one expects from us atheists, especially today. I share, in fact, his fascination with and affinity for the anodyne symbols, imagery, and comforts that people find in religion.

This idea comes through full-force in his novel Cat’s Cradle. The novel depicts the story of Jonah, a writer whose growing fascination with the scientists involved in the atomic bomb leads him first to meeting the children of a famous physicist, then eventually to the fictional island San Lorenzo. The novel reflects a uniquely blended critique of both religion and science. “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be based on lies,” Jonah says in one of the beginning chapters, “will be unable to understand this book.” The significant part of this passage isn’t the “based on lies” part—rather the word “useful.” Useful things that make life bearable can nevertheless be based on lies. The name for this, according to Vonnegut in a later collection, is “Foma”—“harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls”.

Scientists, on the other hand, are not depicted favorably in the novel. While science as such might engender a curiosity with and concern for truth, often enough the human cost has been cast to the wayside. The same people who gave us efficient means to connect with one another also gave us efficient means to blow each other up. While Jonah is interviewing Dr. Asa Breed—the supervisor to the (fictional) Nobel Prize-winning physicist Felix Hoenikker—she defensively replies to his questions, “All your questions seem aimed at getting me to admit that scientists are heartless, conscienceless, narrow boobies, indifferent to the fate of the rest of the human race, or maybe not really members of the human race at all.” Jonah’s reply: “That’s putting it quite strongly.”

The point is that, while religions derive from fictions and lies, they nevertheless bring peace and comfort. They do make us perform silly rituals and spout meaningless mantras, imparting false assurances through fanciful stories. But these alone hardly harm anyone. Science, by contrast, with the hubristic pursuit for technological advancement, has a track record of grave human consequences—the expression of which we can find in such catastrophes as, say, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other such nuclear disasters.

When my father died, he was alone. At the time of his death, an illness which controlled much of his life ultimately led him to collapse on his bedroom floor. It wasn’t until his brother called for a welfare check that he was discovered in his house. Alone. Probably dead for a few days. So it goes.

Although I have some idea of what his last moments were like, I still don’t have clarity. What I do fear, and what causes me the most pain, is the realization that he must have been so afraid. He wasn’t ready to die. Not then.

Throughout his life, my father was a man of little complication. He grew up in a middle-class family in the Midwest. He came close to joining the Naval Academy, but then instead moved to New York in his early 20s to become an accountant. When I was growing up, my father had a light touch about him—an openness and willingness to laugh that was utterly contagious. My sister and I never had to be extraordinary, and it was almost impossible to disappoint him.

My parents divorced when I was a teenager. In the years since, I saw my father go through more divorces, setbacks, and job lay-offs. During my adolescence and into adulthood, I witnessed his losing battle with his body. I watched him sink even deeper into alcoholism while the cirrhosis slowly took his liver, his mind, and then his life.

At his memorial, my sister and I both read eulogies. She went first, and I followed. After telling a few stories about my dad and even making a few jokes at his expense, I read a passage from Cat’s Cradle.

In the novel, the people of San Lorenzo follow the fictional religion of Bokononism. And when their dictator, “Papa” Monzano, is on his deathbed, Dr. von Koenigswald arrives to deliver the last rites of Bokononism. It’s a prayer that beautifully expresses gratitude toward life and beauty, and to me, it stood as the perfect way to end a eulogy. Although it’s originally written with two voices, with “Papa” repeating each line, I cut out the second voice and read it more as if it’s a singular prayer:
God made mud.
God got lonesome.
So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up!”
“See all I’ve made,” said God, “the hills, the sea, the
sky, the stars.”
And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look
Lucky me, lucky mud.
I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going, God.
Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly
couldn’t have.
I feel very unimportant compared to You.
The only way I can feel the least bit important is to
think of all the mud that didn’t even get to sit up and
look around.
I got so much, and most mud got so little.
Thank you for the honor!
Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.
What memories for mud to have!
What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!
I loved everything I saw!
Good night.
I will go to heaven now.
I can hardly wait…
To find out for certain what my wampeter was…
And who was in my karass…
And all the good things our karass did for you.
I concluded my eulogy with this, crying through the line, “thank you for the honor!” (I also skipped over the last three lines about “wampeter” and “karass”—other Vonnegut-isms for aspects of religiosity.) For weeks after my father died, I realized that these lines were helping me cope with his death. Because I don’t know what my father’s last words were—or if he even had any final words—I continue to read these lines as if my father said them to himself. I know full well that this is false (not least because, as far as I know, my father never read Vonnegut), and I don’t convince myself that it’s true.

Rather, imagining that my father loved everything he saw, and that he felt it such an honor to be alive, is consistent with the man he was and the life he wanted. As for me, reinterpreting his final moments with the Bokononist prayer may be a falsehood, may be a lie; in fact, it’s a foma—a harmless untruth meant to comfort my simple soul.

Image: Flickr/Seabamirum