A part-time buffoon and ersatz scholar specializing in BS, pedantry, schmaltz and cultural coprophagia.
In four days it will be one year since my father-in-law died in an accidental shooting. He had recently turned 60 and recently celebrated his 40th wedding anniversary. In 18 days it will be four years since my older brother died suddenly in a black hawk crash in Germany. He was closing in on his 40th birthday. He was preparing to land.
I had two father-figures in my life. I also had two brothers. I lost one of each pair suddenly - dramatically. I've watched my wife struggle with the loss of her father. I've watched my mother-in-law struggle with the sad death and absence of her husband. I've watched my sister-in-law and her kids struggle with the death of their husband and father. I've watched my parents, my siblings. I have grieved much myself for these two good men.
I was reading when they died. I know this. When my father-in-law died I was reading 'Falconer'. When my brother died I was reading 'This Is Water'. After their deaths I couldn't read for weeks, and struggled with reading for months. I was in prison. I was drowning in a water I could neither see nor understand.
Reading Didion's sharp, sometimes funny, but always clear and precise take on her husband's death and her daughter's illness ... my experience is reflected. Not exactly. I'm no Joan Didion and my relationship with both my father-in-law and my brother are mine. However, Didion captures in the net of her prose the essence of grief, tragedy, loss, coping, remembering. He memoir makes me wonder how it is even possible that someone could both feel a semblance of what I feel and capture all the sad glitters, glints and mudgyness of mourning at the same time. It takes a helluva writer.
There are parts of this book I absolutely loved. There are also parts of it I definitely hated. I think Eggers' talent is obvious, his playfulness kinetic, his abilility to make his own grief/history both gruesome and beautiful by basically eating every experience and person surrounding him (disposal of his mom's ashes is a good example). Eventually his thinking about the thinking and thinking about the thinking about thinking kinda drove me a little nuts.
I do want to distinguish my own discomfort with this early Dave Eggers book from the current jealous-hipster backlash against Eggers. Yes, my hipster MFA people, Eggesr isn't Henry James, certainly, but still he manages to subvert the artificial separation between fiction and memoirs in aHWofSG. So, just admit that part of your animosity towards this book is that you didn't think of it, write it, or end up actually being able to make a living/achieve fame from a book you wrote in your twenties (same feelings that bubbles up whenever a Foer brother publishes something)
I'm also glad I waited to read/listen to this until Eggers had proven through McSweeney's, and his more recent books of nonfiction and fiction, that he wasnt just a gimmicky one-hit-wonder.
Oh, and Dion Graham's read of aHWofSG was kindof amazing.
One of my favorite memoirs of all time. IT was perfect in its pacing, its pitch. It was a beautiful, but unsentimental look at youth, poverty, family, and all the cracks and fissures that the world creates to swallow the dreams of youth. Wolff's language still rings with me. I find myself, going back and reading whole passages of 'This Boy's Life' just to drink the language and the rub against the energy and charge of Wolff's vitality. A good memoirist gets the reader to experience the artist's past life through his words, a great memoirist seduces the reader into a place where the reader suddenly recognizes the universal experiences in our shared lives.
There were parts of the book I felt like Tobias Wolff was not writing his history, but mine. The details of our lives might have been different, our stories might be adolescent antipoles, but I read Wolff and I think he has robbed me of my emotions, faked my youthful hope, slandered my stripling reputation, and squandered all of my schoolboy potential.