Tag Archives: book review

This River by James Brown


James Brown’s new memoir, This River, is a collection of a dozen stories, most of which were previously published in literary journals or magazines. Here they come together to form a taut, sometimes brutal, picture of a man whose life has been ravaged by drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, and plain old-fashioned hard luck. But it would be wrong to label this work as confessional or some sort of misery memoir. Brown doesn’t revel in his personal catastrophes. Arguably some of his best work is the work in which he explores his relationships with his two young sons or his own father. He’s got a light touch, a thoughtful outlook, and he knows how to weave a gripping narrative.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Having had my own struggles with addiction, I appreciate good stories about the lives of addicts and alcoholics. But the problem with many of these stories is that it’s so easy for an author to allow the work to fall into one of two catchall categories: sensational tales (as in James Frey’s Million Little Pieces), or revisionist bullshit stories that are often little more than thinly veiled testimonials for another person’s efforts or some sort of therapy. Brown doesn’t fall into either of these traps with his writing.

Of course, Brown does have extraordinary situations to relate—what lifelong addict wouldn’t?—but he doesn’t rely on this sort of circumstance to carry his stories. Case in point, in the chapter titled, “Instruction on the Use of Heroin,” Brown describes going to purchase drugs in a well-to-do community somewhere in the “neighboring mountains” of San Bernardino, “well above the fray,” where he meets a man who was formerly his AA sponsor, now a drug dealer. Brown describes his former recovery mentor’s appearance at the door this way:

He’s wearing a ratty tank top, but what I notice most at this moment are the syringes hanging from his shoulders, one on each side, the needles sunk into the middle head of the deltoid muscle. On the left, it’s loaded with heroin. On the right, it’s cocaine. I can tell the difference because one syringe contains a dark-colored fluid while the other, the coke, is a milky white.

If he needs a bump up, he depresses the plunger on the milky-white side. If he needs a bump down, something to even him out, to take the edge off the coke, it’s the dark side. The idea is to find the perfect balance, but for now he’s on the upside, spun on the coke.

What makes Brown’s work so satisfying to read is that he doesn’t rely on these type characters alone to carry his stories. In the above chapter about meeting his drug dealer, Brown thoughtfully examines the sexual mores of another character, Crystal, (her name an apt pseudonym) an equally strung-out teenage girlfriend of the forty-something drug dealer. We learn with horror that Crystal lives with the dealer with the permission of her mother, who is also strung out on drugs.

“[Your wife is] so pretty,” [Crystal] says in that dream voice again.

By no means is this Crystal’s way of flirting with me.

She’s genuinely interested in my wife. At every A.A. meeting, when we were all still clean and sober, and whenever my wife accompanied me in support, which she did often, Crystal would stare at her from across the room. And there was something desperate about it. Something sad. Something pathetic. It was the way a young girl stares admiringly at a beautiful older woman, the one the girl wishes to be like, the one she might’ve hoped to have had for a mother. And because she did not, because she lacks the confidence and self-esteem that is every child’s birthright, because narcotics steal any fleeting hope of a better life, Crystal trades, as her mother still trades, on her sexuality.

Brown sizes up poor Crystal accurately, in just a few words, but he’s so gentle, so tender. Another writer might have described her as immoral or worse. Something more heavy-handed. But not Brown.

And if he doesn’t rely on his career as an addict to move us, Brown’s not here to laud any particular therapy or approach to addiction either. If an A.A. sponsor shows up in one of Brown’s stories, he’s just as likely to have failed at his own recovery as to hold out the lone chance for anyone else’s redemption.

Brown doesn’t limit his introspection to seedy characters from his addiction. In a brief, touching chapter, “Remembering Linda,” he explores his childhood anger for Helen, a teenage girl with whom he lived in a strict foster home. Only you don’t realize he is angry with Helen until the very end of the story. Throughout his telling, he is more concerned with his infatuation with Linda, who is then suddenly whisked from the foster home (and his life) for rule violations, and for which he feels oddly incriminated. But what makes the story so remarkable is that Brown mutes his anger even as he reveals it. Instead he focuses on the larger truth of the desperate emotional needs of teenage girls trapped in foster care, a truth that is made clear so swiftly and with such ease in the very last lines, it can take your breath away.

When it comes to addiction and mental health issues, Brown’s This River doesn’t offer platitudes, easy answers, or stock characters. He seems at his best when he fixes his gaze on the hard realities of life, not to complain or blame, but to shine a light on the resilience of the human spirit.

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About a Mountain by John D’Agata

About a Mountain

In 2002, John D’Agata helped his mother move to Las Vegas and found himself following the ongoing controversy around a federal plan to store locally radioactive waste material from all over the country. Also while in Vegas, he volunteered for a community suicide prevention help line, and that same summer a 16 year-old boy jumped from the roof of a hotel to his death. In About A Mountain, ($23.95, W.W. Norton & Company) John D’Agata takes these disparate threads of his experience in Vegas and weaves them into a meditation on everything from bureaucracy and corrupt politics, to the self-destructive impulses of individuals and nations, to the limits of language over time.

For over twenty years, Yucca Mountain, the titular mountain, has been at the heart of a plan to dispose of waste from every nuclear power plant or weapon development site across the United States. Once collected, the government plans to store this material underground, inside the mountain, until it no longer poses a threat to human life. But as D’Agata unpacks the decisions that led to this course of action, it becomes clear that the threat to humanity isn’t what’s driving the policy. Instead there are politics at play at almost every level of the process, from the assessment of risk—does the threat of transporting nuclear waste outweigh the threat of storing it in multiple locations—to adopting Yucca Mountain as the central storage facility. Will anyone be surprised to learn that Congress selected this mountain—which geologically may not be the most suitable location for a variety of reasons—because its state and federal representatives were among the weakest, least able to protect their constituents from harm?

Fortunately D’Agata has his sights set higher.

He isn’t primarily concerned with rabble rousing against corrupt politicians, but wants us to consider instead the act of self-destruction itself. We consider it literally as he traces the last hours of a sixteen year old Levi Presley who commits suicide. We consider it figuratively as we reflect on how long the toxicity of the radioactive waste we’re creating will last, compared to the length of the longest known civilizations and cultures, or the efficacy of language itself. D’Agata gets high marks for the scope and breadth of this work. He reaches for and imagines descriptions of everything from Edvard Munch contemplating the world as he paints The Scream, to the last hours of Presley’s life, before he leaps from the tower at the Stratosphere. I really wanted to enjoy this book, and for the most part I did, but somehow, something about its execution left me cold.

D’Agata has a penchant for lists. He includes lists of contradictory facts, lists of the exact types of devastation that might occur in a traffic accident involving a truck with a payload of nuclear waste, lists that include everything that would be contaminated in such an accident from rusted bolts to light bulbs, lists of the accumulation of cosmic sums of interest that accrue over vast periods of time. One or two these type lists seems fine, a good idea—this is, after all, a book about the existential grief of modern life. What better way to present this than by asking the reader to wade through this sort of data. But I am the type reader who wants to drink in every word, and I feel cheated when I am tempted—no, invited is a better word—to scan so many lists by the author. Worse, D’Agata has chosen to bring into the story his own experience, but his experience moving his mother to Vegas seems inconsequential and dull. Mom and son look for somewhere to live. Mom and son march in a small parade. Not all of his experiences are so trite. For example, he describes a visit to the proposed site at Yucca Mountain, and his work on the suicide prevention hot line allows him to segue more easily into the material about poor Levi. But there is little self-revelation here. The material from his life is simply a way to frame the text, lacking any sort of urgency or depth. Why bother?

Compare D’Agata’s use of memoir here with something like Nick Flynn’s sublime memoir, The Ticking is the Bomb, where Flynn, a soon to be father, uses his book to examine his fears of fatherhood and intimacy and, as the Abu Ghraib scandal breaks in the news, his growing obsession with torture and pain. Under Flynn’s deft hand, the connections between his own personal fears, American fears of terrorist attack, and the fears of torturer and tortured alike seem plain enough, but each is made all the more urgent by the immediacy of the prison scandal, or the infant growing in its mother’s womb. This is how to use personal experience to inform a political issue. D’Agata presents some intriguing ideas, but his text misses on some important marks.

It’s a noble miss, but a miss all the same.

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Name All The Animals by Alison Smith

I’m fascinated with coming-of-age stories but the big problem that I’ve had with my own is finding how to engage the reader and keep the piece moving, yet still convey the story I set out to tell from the start. I recently read Alison Smith’s fine coming-of-age memoir, Name All The Animals, mainly on the merits of a favorable review by essayist and journalist Richard Gilbert. I was particular enticed by Gilbert’s saying her narrative moved “like a freight train.” I have to agree. Smith is a master at organizing her material to provoke interest.

At fifteen, Ms. Smith loses her eighteen-year-old brother in a car crash, and her staunchly Catholic family shudders in the grief and loss that follow. Her brother dies almost immediately in the narrative, possibly as early as the second chapter. She then has to describe not only losing her faith as a result of her grief, but also falling victim to an eating disorder and then discovering she is a lesbian. She sets up a reveal about her brother’s death to heighten narrative tension (as will happen any time you purposely hide information from your reader), but this reveal does more than just build suspense.

I found myself immersed  in an experience similar to that of a fifteen-year-old struggling to wrap her mind around an awful truth while a well-meaning community actively suppress certain information. When I finally did learn the truth of the reveal, I found myself all too willing to identify with Alison, quietly lulled into accepting her peculiar eating habits, which aren’t initially presented as eating disorder, but something more like ritual. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I resigned myself to them, knowing that it isn’t a particularly healthy alternative for a girl to shun her food, but allowing it as normal for young Alison Smith, this poor child struggling to cope.

Establishing this strong sense of empathy allows Smith to offer another surprise in her narrative. In the scene where she unintentionally reveals her eating habits to her friend and budding love interest, we readers already know Smith’s secret, but because we have been brought in so close to her emotionally, we feel shocked to see Smith’s grief from the perspective of her lover, someone on the outside looking in. I even felt a little chastised as I read the scene, almost as if between the three of us who were there (the childhood incarnation of Ms. Smith, her girlfriend, and me) the girlfriend was really the only healthy emotional person available. This perverse twist was the highlight of the book for me.

I also want to point out something about how Smith presents the characters. This is a story about a religious family, in an equally conservative and religious community, written by a girl who is about to take a huge U-turn away from all of those conventions. Clearly there are going to be some hard feelings, but this is where Smith’s work really shines. She has a tenderness, a certain light touch.

Take, for example, the scene where she loses her faith. Smith renders this scene literally: Jesus sits on the lip of her bathtub, meekly shrugging his shoulders in response to her questions about how her brother could have died such a horrible death. Regardless of how you feel about religion, or big questions like, “Why do the innocent suffer?,” you must acknowledge the warmth and reverence with which she treats this loss. In fact, all her characters get this treatment. When her mother launches into a homophobic rant, the narrator remains quiet, as she should. Smith understands that her character’s behavior is indictment enough. Attending Catholic school at Our Lady of Mercy High School, Smith could well offer the Catholic Church her descriptions of the religious community she found there for use as promotional material: these Nuns are constantly busy either making us readers laugh, or saving Alison Smith’s life, time and time again.

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Tim Elhajj in Together Magazine

I’ve got a piece up in Together, a new recovery oriented newspaper for the New York area. I’m revisiting the James Frey boondoggle, but looking at it from a new (I hope) perspective. Check it out: The Millionth Word on “A Million Little Pieces.”

Together appears online and in print. I just got my print copy, and it looks like a gas, not just for people in the recovering community but for anyone interested in a more healthful, contemplative life.

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How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed

The last good book I read was Theo Nestor’s divorce memoir, How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed.

I can’t remember ever reading another memoir about divorce, but I enjoyed this one. The first chapter is essentially the Modern Love essay Theo wrote for the New York Times. The feedback she got from publishing her essay actually plays a small role in her transition from married to single mother. I wish the first chapter to my memoir would present itself to me in similar fashion, but no such luck.

Theo mentions that thing Dad would occasionally do when he and Mom were arguing. Dad would say, “If this were the Old Country, I could clap my hands three times and you would be divorced.” Sometimes Dad would even clap his hands once for effect. Theo says that’s a Sunni tradition, but I wonder if it isn’t pan-Arab. Dad was Catholic and he seemed pretty familiar with it.

Of course, Mom didn’t care about any clapping hands nonsense. She would just shrug her shoulders and say, “This ain’t the Old Country.”

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