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“Norman’s tale is conversational, elegant, and full of life…All Norman’s stories – even the last, of a tragedy visited on him and his family, another intimation of death-are related with grace. He shows that the pleasures of the memoir often lie not in a life of dramatic incident but in the flights and transfigurations of a contemplative mind.” - Jane Smiley, Harper's
"Some books celebrate the human condition; others commiserate with us. This memoir does both, and offers fine, subtly fey companionship to boot." - Helen Oyeyemi, NPR.org
"Five stellar personal essays by Norman that shed light on his melancholy, tragedy-struck fiction and larger human failures....A bracing, no-nonsense memoir, infused with fresh takes on love, death and human nature." - STARRED Kirkus
Maybe there should be blind taste tests for literature just as there are for wine: Does knowing the vintage affect the flavor? Does knowing the genre affect the reading?
If the word memoir had been blacked out on the cover of I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place by Howard Norman, best known as a novelist (The Bird Artist; The Museum Guard), would I have thought it fiction — and not felt slightly troubled at every implausibility that brushed by? It doesn't matter that it doesn't matter; it's like light seeping in through the door crack as you watch a movie: a minor distraction that nonetheless breaks the spell of a willing suspension of disbelief. The entire experience moves on that quiet mechanism.
In five loosely linked essays (he calls them "overlapping panels of memory and experience") — differing themes called forth by place and occupation, from youth as a librarian's assistant in a Michigan bookmobile to first love in Nova Scotia to collecting oral histories in Arctic villages to the mature adventures of a wide-ranging writer in Vermont, Washington, D.C., and Point Reyes, California — Norman constructs new life from the old one's plangent fragments. That is what a memoirist does: select from bricks that are ready-fired in the kiln of actuality. The peculiar act of creativity in nonfiction is to choose and juxtapose, to end with a running bond or a Flemish cross. Character, especially the narrator's, is among those bricks. A suspicion that they too have been manufactured by the author casts doubt on the whole endeavor: maybe those string courses weren't laid one on top of the other. Maybe they came from the factory in slabs.
Certainly Norman has had more than his share of extraordinary material handed to him by life, "incidents of arresting strangeness" all right. His father, a no-account swindler, had left home; for California, his mother said. But during his fifteenth summer, Norman spotted him eleven times — lounging at the counter of the local drugstore in Grand Rapids. He contacted his son only once, to strong-arm the boy out of some cash he'd won in a radio station giveaway. The author was able to re-create their dialogue — some four pages' worth, meaning the diary he kept in those days must have been scrupulous, befitting a future writer — to show himself as preternaturally self-possessed, a master of sarcasm.
A similarly forged armor of self-protection is manifested in the consummate poetic control evident throughout every section (each, like a stanza, employing refrain and echo). This carefully wrought quality extends from the level of sentence — and there are some lovely ones — to that of action, which is when it starts to feel possibly too well controlled. The tender filaments of poetry start snapping when we are forced to wonder, Really? He returns to a crime scene, which also happens to be his home. At 5:30 in the evening, gripped by an immediate need to sit down before his Olivetti, he begins writing to friends — "all told, perhaps thirty letters, the briefest five single-spaced pages and some as long as twenty." He breaks for dinner at 3 a.m. I break for a calculator. Really? He's cranked out a minimum of 150 pages, but possibly twice that. Norman is no mere memoirist; he is a superhero of the typewriter.
Yet, infrequently, he lets down his writerly guard to display a flaw. When he does, as in a haunting episode that concerns the death of a swan, it is almost a relief: here, we sense, is a real brick. There is its ragged edge, singed black. Only going through true fire yields that.
More heightened extraordinariness is on the way, though. The young woman he might have married is the only passenger in a fatal plane crash. It is what comes next that causes the reader to startle out of the reverie induced by Norman's lullaby of prose, and perhaps reach for a calculator again. At age twenty, with $80 to his name, he misses a job interview to be a bellhop because he stumbles into an art auction and ends up bidding four grand for a bird painting. Moreover, he refuses an offer to return the painting for resale, instead settling on a payment plan of $500 a month — this, in 1969, on a janitor's salary. His monthly rent is a tenth that. Grief (and a kindly benefactor) goes only so far to explain his action; there seems to be something rather large unspoken here. Particularly when he quickly raises his hand at yet another auction. $2,250 later, he's the happy owner of a new bird painting.
Possibly because that episode had rendered me alert, I heard another false note in the background: the retailing, in a snippet of conversation with the doomed girlfriend, of the Woodstock festival canard that if you remembered being there, you probably weren't. A mere two months after the event, the joke could not have been cooked through yet. "The novels I was reading at the time deftly orchestrated implausibilities along a clear narrative line, but I could not locate such a line in my own life," he writes. He has fixed that now.
Howard Norman is known as a writer of exceptional understatement (also for giving the people in his books strikingly odd names), in plenteous evidence here. This quality lends the work an insistent — almost incantatory — charm. Not to mention the built-in lure of curiosity: What could possibly happen to this guy next? The final piece most shockingly proves the introduction's contention that his life is replete with "unceremonious hauntings." Perhaps to ensure a steady supply, he kept throwing himself off the cliff of fate, impetuously but also with the swagger of a hero. If this Portrait of the Artist as a Young Clint Eastwood had gone Joyce all the way, "semi-autobiographical" could have replaced "memoir" on the cover. Without the distractions of a label, we can better taste the wine. Not every one has to be varietal. Sometimes you just want a nice literary blend.
Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of three works of nonfiction: The Perfect Vehicle, Dark Horses and Black Beauties, andThe Place You Love Is Gone, all from Norton. She is writing a book on B. F. Skinner and the ethics of dog training.
Reviewer: Melissa Holbrook Pierson
On summer evenings in 1964, I used to sit on the basement stairs to read and cool down. This was in Grand Rapids, Michigan. August was particularly steamy, and about seven o’clock on a Friday late in the month, I sat there and watched my older brother’s girlfriend, Paris Keller (“I was named after the capital of France,” she said), who was wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt, and sandals, cross her arms, raise off her shirt, and toss it into the clothes dryer. Lavender in color, it had been soaked transparent by rain on her walk to our house. Paris owned a car but liked to take long walks, too. The T-shirt read EXIST TO KISS YOU, a declaration that was both existential and, for me at age fifteen, almost cruelly erotic.
She stood there naked from the waist up. The shirt tumbled alone behind the dryer’s glass window. Paris looked over at me a few times. We talked awhile. I was all but praying that the shirt needed a second cycle. Paris told me her father had been killed in the Korean War. It was the first conversation I ever wrote down. Typed it hunt-and-peck on an Olivetti manual typewriter. I made a copy on carbon paper, too. I’m looking at the pages now. Remember carbon paper? If you handled a sheet carelessly, you would leave fingerprints on everything you touched, as if you’d broken into your own life.
I liked Paris a lot. More about her later.
To this day, my father’s secret life draws certain difficult associations with an apothecary. In the Midwest in the early 1960s, the word apothecary had not exclusively been replaced by the term drugstore, or even pharmacy. In Dykstra’s Apothecary on Division Street, the proprietor, Peter Dykstra, not only was the pharmacist but occasionally doubled as the soda jerk. In the summer months he’d hire a teenager to work the counter, which had three spin-around red leather seats, each elevated on a silver column, with a silver plate at the base, riveted to the floor. DYKSTRA’S APOTHECARY was stenciled in an arc of bold lettering across the wide front window. One day the radio said the summer was “proving downright tropical.” The fighting in Indochina had completed its transition to the Vietnam War. You could order a root beer float, a coffee, a milk shake, a Coca-Cola — that was it. No, you could also get a grilled cheese sandwich. The apothecary carried an Afrikaans-language weekly. Mr. Dykstra had been born and raised in Johannesburg.
For concocting root beer floats, there was a helmet-headed spigot out of which a pressurized elixir hissed and gurgled into glasses the size of a small flower vase. That summer’s employee was Marcelline Vanderhook, who wore a triangular paper hat bobby-pinned atop her pale blond hair. Her boyfriend, Robert Boxer, a “part-Negro boy from Ottawa Hills High School,” as Marcelline said, had his driver’s license and provided home deliveries using Mr. Dykstra’s Studebaker. Robert was an All-State guard in basketball. Years later, he became a Rhodes Scholar in art history at Oxford. Later yet, he became a successful painter in Paris and then San Francisco, specializing in portraits. I own a small oil painting of his; it shows two elderly black women sitting in wheelchairs, chatting as if on someone’s porch, except the chairs are set out on a dock at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Trawlers are moored in the background.
Robert Boxer frequented the bookmobile where I was employed. The driver, a trained librarian named Pinnie Oler, would say, “Hello, Robert. I’ve got a Nehi orange in my ice chest here for you. You want to look at the art books, of course.” Robert would sit in the bookmobile for the duration of the Dykstra’s Apothecary stop, studying with great concentration books about Picasso, Matisse, Georgia O’Keeffe, and a few other world-famous artists. The art section never had more than twenty books in all.
One thing Pinnie Oler told me was that Peter Dykstra had been ostracized and “all but run out of the Dutch Reformed Church” for allowing a mixed-race couple in his employ. At the time, that was all I ever heard about this subject. Except when Robert Boxer said, “I love kicking the shit out of East Christian in basketball. They look up at the scoreboard, last two minutes, and those Hollanders get crazy bug-eyed terrified looks on their faces, all panicky like they just ate a bunch of poisonous tulips, you know? They and us worship a different Jesus, as my Alabama grandma liked to say.” One other thing: Robert Boxer was Peter Dykstra’s son (Robert’s mother had passed away), but Robert preferred to use his mother’s family name, Boxer. The emotions of it all registered in me then in an unlettered way, deep in the nerves. Any real understanding of how the apartheid system in far-flung South Africa was an intensifying element in the racist atmosphere of Grand Rapids came only in retrospect — when, in 1977, I was living in Ann Arbor and read that Robert Boxer’s older brother, Reginald, had been beaten senseless during a violent protest in Detroit against the murder of the activist Steven Biko by the South African police. The name of Robert’s younger brother, James, is on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Through the bookmobile window, I saw my father eleven times that summer. The number has no other meaning except that it wasn’t more or less. Yet I remember it was eleven. Each time he’d be sitting at the counter in Dykstra’s Apothecary, chatting with Mr. Dykstra or Marcelline or Robert Boxer, he’d be drinking coffee. For the most part I’d see his handsome face in profile. He would have been thirty-eight years old. Hard to imagine that now: he’s been dead for twenty years as I write this (he’d succumbed to lung cancer). My mother and he had met in the Belfaire Jewish Orphan Home in Cleveland, in 1933, when both were seven, and had gotten married at nineteen.
I kept these sightings to myself. Why? My mother had told me that my father was living in California. Did she know he was still in Grand Rapids? Was her statement a necessary displacement of the truth? Or did she actually believe my father was in California? My mother, Estella, died in 2009 at the age of eighty-four, and I never asked her about this. I didn’t ask her a lot of things I should have.
So when the bookmobile made its scheduled forty-five-minute stop across from Dykstra’s, I’d see my father with his neatly pressed trousers, white shirt buttoned to the neck, plaid sports coat, and slim build; his beautiful smile, curly short-cut brown hair, and deep blue eyes were reflected in the counter-wide mirror. Dykstra’s had air conditioning. I suppose that’s why my father wore his sports coat and Marcelline her button-down cotton sweater indoors. In my house, at 1727 Giddings Street, our “air conditioning” had to be set up on a day-to-day basis. It took some doing. You’d remove the ice tray from the Kelvinator’s freezer, gouge out cubes with an ice pick, put the cubes in two bowls, and place one bowl in front of a small electric fan on the kitchen counter, the other in front of an identical fan on the windowsill on the opposite side of the kitchen. The kitchen table, then, was the place to sit. WGRD radio said it was on average the hottest summer of the century so far.
This is how I got the bookmobile job. One day in mid-June, about a week after Ottawa Hills High School let out, Pinnie Oler said to me, “You’re every single day on this bookmobile for hours. The city’s just told me I’m able to hire an assistant. Why not take the job? You know the place inside out. I’ll lie about your legal age by a year. Nobody gives a shit anyway. I’ll take that on myself, okay?” The job paid fifty-five cents an hour, and the hours were nine a.m. to four p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, with an hour lunch break, which I always began at noon. I’d pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and Pinnie Oler would provide a bottle of Nehi orange. It was called pop, not soda. I wasn’t allowed to eat my lunch inside the bookmobile, so I tried to find a shade tree to sit under. There were plenty of oaks and maples that served this need. I once woke up under a maple where I’d been napping open-mouthed, half choking on a hard-stemmed whirligig seed fallen from a low branch.
The bookmobile was an old school bus painted blue. Inside, it had been fitted with bookshelves and two leather-topped benches. The benches had been repaired with strips of masking tape. There was a fan screwed to the dashboard and another nailed to the back shelves that covered the former emergency door. Two fans in my house, two in the bookmobile.
Pinnie Oler was, to my best guess, in his late thirties. He had a slight Dutch accent. He was about five feet nine inches tall with a thin face — a sad face, I thought. He had sandy brown hair combed straight back; you could see the comb tracks. He always wore khaki shorts, white socks, lace-up boots, and a khaki short-sleeved shirt. “My safari outfit,” he called it.
My first official day on the job, he showed me how to spray the books with a special solution that killed dust mites, and how to write overdue notices and perform other clerical tasks. From the get-go I approached this employment with the utmost seriousness. I thought of studying library science. I saw myself in that world. I even entertained the possibility that Pinnie Oler’s position might someday be mine. I had no earthly notion that one day bookmobiles would be extinct. I had always seen them on the streets.
Let’s say you were standing next to the steering wheel and looking toward the back of the bookmobile. Filling the top three shelves on the right side was the Science category: books about zoology, astronomy, geology, medicine. There were three or four books about the Canadian Arctic. The bottom two shelves below Science were reserved for Government/Social Science. This section had a lot of books about Abraham Lincoln. Along the left side were shelves containing Fiction and Poetry (Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, John Keats, Langston Hughes), and directly below was the shelf of Children’s Books. Art was on a shelf across the back. The five slide-out wooden drawers of the card catalogue were in the back left-hand corner. On top of the drawers was a slotted box: Book Requests. At the end of my workday I’d deliver the requests to Pinnie Oler, who would submit them to the central branch library. One time I found a condom in the request box, another time a pornographic postcard bent in half, another time a handwritten note: You will be killed for letting kikes and niggers touch our books. I didn’t show these to my boss. More typically, at day’s end there would simply be four or five requests for this or that title.
My mother worked in what is now known as child care. She supervised at least a dozen young children every day at the Orthodox synagogue downtown. This meant my two younger brothers had to be at “summer camp” all day. We couldn’t afford to pay the yearly dues at the synagogue, and no special dispensation was offered even though my mother worked there. Instead we belonged to what she referred to as the more “welcoming” Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue that provided her a more familiar if not nostalgic theology, insofar as the Belfaire Jewish Orphan Home had not followed strictly Orthodox practices.
All through my elementary and high school years, holiday events and myriad other occasions at Temple Emanuel comprised my mother’s entire social life. We never had anyone over for dinner, except once in a blue moon my aunt Shirley, my mother’s sister. Shirley, an officer of the temple’s Sisterhood, often sat at the rabbi’s table at Passover, and lorded this over my mother. (“Estella likes to fraternize with the shvartzehs,” meaning the black kitchen help — which was true.) Shirley had always struck me as a snob and a nag. I never did figure out where her impressive talent for condescension came from; after all, she was raised in the Belfaire Jewish Orphan Home, too. One of my aunt’s primary complaints was that my mother never had anyone else over for dinner. It is possible she might’ve worried that my mother was isolated. More plausibly, my aunt was embarrassed by my mother’s frumpy housedresses, her menial job, her introverted nature, and her absent husband — “for all intents and purposes my sister’s a widow” — and she rarely invited my mother to dinner at her house, either. There it was. But by week’s end my mother was simply exhausted. And she said, “I like weekends to myself.”
Twice that summer my older brother, Michael, stole a car. Oddly, after each theft he waited out the police in an empty pew of Temple Emanuel or at the library table playing cards with the temple’s janitor and groundskeeper. Both times, Rabbi Esrig asked what he was doing there in the middle of the day, and apparently my brother gave him an honest answer, along the lines of, “I stole a car and drove it here. It’s in the parking lot.” The first time, when the car — a 1958 Edsel, for God’s sake, a hideously designed vehicle — was returned to its rightful owner on Union Street, the victim agreed not to press charges if my brother painted his one-story house, which my brother did, though it took him about two months. The second time, Paris dipped into her “inheritance” to bail my brother out of jail. That second victim pressed charges.
In the end Michael served six months probation, during which he was assigned the task of painting the center lines on highways with a “cleanup crew” of other parolees. The thing was, in both instances Michael had only needed transportation to the temple. Once he’d arrived there he seemed to have no further use for the stolen car. I’m not suggesting there was anything rational in any of this. Paris would’ve loaned him her car at the drop of a hat. She had a two-year-old black Pontiac four-door. She’d made all her payments. That was a situation heretofore unknown to me. In my house, it felt as if my mother was going to be making car payments for a hundred years.
Anyway, in late June Pinnie Oler said to me, “You always look fairly glum when you get to work. I figure you’ve got a lot going on at home. I’m not going to ask. Just consider this library your daytime address. But I can’t let you sleep in here. I get the feeling you’re about to ask to. But go ahead and consider this old bus like a café in Paris — nobody’s gonna kick you out. I’ve never been to Paris, but I heard that’s true.”
Engine-wise, the bookmobile had a lot of problems: stalled out at a corner, blue hood raised, radiator geysering steam, grind of metal and friction smell, fan belt broken, oil spilling out, things like that. “Just bus problems,” Pinnie Oler would call them, shrugging philosophically. Looking back, the word that I think accurately describes him is poised. He’d walk right up to a house, knock on the door, and when someone appeared, he’d point to the bookmobile and ask to use the telephone, and far more often than not it worked out. He would call his wife, Martha, who was a bus mechanic for the Grand Rapids school system. It must’ve been rare to have a woman mechanic back then. Maybe it still is. Martha would come to the rescue. She drove a green pickup truck with built-in toolboxes.
To my mind, Martha Oler was an absolutely beautiful woman. I thought she looked savvy and confident. During my months as a bookmobile assistant, she had to be called out on at least half a dozen occasions. Each time, she’d climb down from the cab of her truck, walk over to her husband, lean him against the broken-down bookmobile, and in her smudged mechanic’s smock kiss him as deeply and passionately as people kissing in any movie I’d seen up to that point — right out in the open, daylight audience or no. I saw a lot through the bookmobile window. Then she’d return to the truck, get her tools, and attend to the bus problem. She was slightly taller than Pinnie, had dark red hair and a quick, lip-biting smile, and always leaned inside the bookmobile to say, “Hey, sport, fancy seeing you here!” That was her little joke, me being a fixture like I was.
The bookmobile made eight official stops per day. Hillcrest Elementary, the public swimming pool, Mills Retirement Village, Blodgett Memorial Hospital, across from Dykstra’s Apothecary, Mulick Park Elementary School, Union High School, and the YMCA. But in the summer of 1964, Pinnie Oler also made, a minimum of twice a week, what he called an unscheduled stop. This was in front of his own house, at 58 Wycliffe Drive NE. The first time he made this unscheduled stop, he switched off the ignition and said, “There’s a park nearby. Take a Nehi orange or keep filling out overdue notices, whatever you want. Me and Martha are trying to make a baby.” He turned the roundabout handle to open the door, stepped out onto the street, went to the front of the bookmobile, and propped open the hood so it looked like the bus had broken down. “For appearance’ sake,” he said. His wasn’t a front door he had to knock on. Two Nehi orange sodas later — add to that sitting in the park reading a book about adventures in the far north of Canada, dangling my feet in a pond that was home to two aggressive swans to watch out for, and nodding off under an oak for a quick nap on a sultry afternoon — I went back to the bookmobile. There I found Pinnie Oler sitting in the driver’s seat, the motor idling. Martha was browsing the Science section. “Martha’s got the afternoon off,” he said. “She’s going to get some reading in.”
Advice of the Fatherly Sort
Grey Geese Descending
I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place
The Healing Powers of the
Beautifully told and unforgettable story
In I’d Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place, Norman displays a collage his life’s most seminal moments which sample his experience in five different locales (Midwest, Arctic, West Coast, Washington D.C., and New England). However, the focus, instead of weighing exclusively on Norman, emphasizes the power of place. Although this book is undoubtedly a memoir, Norman distances himself emotionally from the moments he recounts to emphasize the atmosphere of the event instead of the happenings. His philosophical diversions explore the relationship of his place in life with his physical surroundings at that time. These retellings tend more to be artistic renderings and impressions with their nonlinear narrative and philosophical tangents rather than fact-oriented accounts.
Ultimately, Norman’s story is spellbinding. If you are interested in travel memoirs which focus both on place and personal growth, I highly recommend Peter Freuchen’s Arctic Adventure.
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