Safe Suicide, DeWitt Henry, Red Hen Press
It’s called creative non-fiction, and these days there’s just no stopping it. More and more commercial publishing depends on the memoir, ostensibly non-fiction and most, at least, remain reasonably true to the facts. Meanwhile, at universities all over the country a fledgling writer can earn multiple degrees in the genre, though it seems just recently hatched. Truman Capote could claim to have invented the approach in 1965 when he published his “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood. Another originator could be Tom Wolfe with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in 1968 or when Norman Mailer bulled onto the scene with The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago (both also ’68). All fine work, no denying, and all apply the intimacy, subtlety, and significant shape of a made-up story to a real one. They take the moil of experience and recompose it with a beginning, middle, and end; they excavate character, establish metaphors, and identify watersheds.
DeWitt Henry in his new collection of “narratives, essays, and meditations”—the subtitle for his quiet yet stinging Safe Suicide—doesn’t take his subjects from the headlines, as Capote did with his Kansas murders or Wolfe with the Merry Pranksters (Mailer, typically, leapt up on to some of the biggest stages in the nation). Rather, Henry works with the sort of materials that engage your average MFA-candidate namely, the tensions, changes, and illuminations that occur around a largely unremarkable family and home. His opening piece bears the humble title Memoir of My Father, and its subject is an absence, a deed never witnessed:
Also, as far back as I can remember Dad, there was the oddness — long before I had any explanation for it — and tension that he couldn’t drink anything alcoholic, even desserts that had a mint liqueur, but that on special occasions Mom, and then later my brothers, could. Out for dinner or at another grownups’ party, there would be, when he was offered cocktails or whatever, a stiffened refusal, almost angry, and right there, a sense of odd and shameful difference….(1)
As the child grows, he picks up details of his father’s struggle with alcohol, over and done with before little DeWitt was old enough to notice. Still, throughout, the essay emphasizes impressions like that “stiffened refusal” and its effect. “Memoir” ends with a close description of the father’s sleeping face, in a later photo.
In that photo, Henry detects memento mori: “The mouth is darkly gaping, slack.” (6) The essay concludes with the chilling touch of the nullity his father sought in booze, rather than the noisy business of how he acted out his self-destructive impulses. There’s no Million Little Pieces here, no broken crockery or broken bones—which makes a reader trust this writer a lot more than anyone should ever have trusted James Frey. To put the point another way, Safe Suicide offers creative non-fiction in the classic vein, the kind sometimes still called “the personal essay.” Such work tends to be less flashy than the examples I’ve cited. In sensitive hands like Henry’s, however, it allows for compelling intensity and clarifying insight.
With this aim in mind, Henry’s best essays are those with a smaller scope. A few concern his childhood in and around Philadephia, and a number of others grow out of his Boston-based adult life as a writer (he has an award-winning novel, The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts) and editor (he was the founder and longtime director of Ploughshares). For instance Odd, a reminiscence of pre-teen days, smartly inverts the coming-of-age meditation, since the emphasis is never on the young storyteller but rather on a local celebrity, a retired boxer. Via this swaggering, damaged man, there dawns the awareness of how the years demand their pound after pound of flesh.
Another essay, Bungee, presents a success of a very different sort and provides the title phrase, “We live and trust in our safe suicides.” (73) Henry’s own first bungee jump came when he was an adult, esteemed as an editor, author, and prof, not to mention a husband and father deep into middle age. Thus, his take on this more-than-half-crazy form of recreation allows room for the full range of his learning and experience. The essay’s no ordinary recollection, but rather constructed in a series of blackout-brief thoughts, and these range from a fire-and-brimstone passage of the late-Puritan Jonathan Edwards (the famous warning that God dangles our souls “much as one holds… some loathsome insect over the fire”) to a businesslike self-assurance that, should something happen to him, his wife and children would be taken care of. The whole comes together wittily and movingly by essay’s end as its final musing pivots around that key oxymoron.
A number of Henry’s best meditations are similarly laid out like prose mosaics in which the final piece has the stuff of poetry. Gravity skillfully juggles memory, scholarship, and dream looping back and forth across the subject of evanescence, and in the end this becomes a potent fragmentary metaphor for literary art: “The yearning of these words, tethered to their vanishing.” (81) So too, Beautiful Flower ascends from thoughts of self-immolation in particular the Buddhist monks who set themselves afire to protest the Vietnam war to a remarkable affirmation of faith. So too, Arias sings a penny-pincher’s ode to love, and Returnables takes dumpster-divers as avatars of the imagination.
If the lovely phrase “quiet fire” weren’t forever linked to early-‘60s Miles Davis (I believe Bob Dylan in the poems on the back of The Times They Are A-Changin’, was the first to describe Davis that way), it would serve well for Henry at his finest. With restraint, he reduces his materials to their core heat and illumination. The weaker essays here emphasize political struggles over lyric association. The re-hash of in-house squabbles at Ploughshares, for instance, seem to me notable mostly for their honesty. I wish all literary magazines were so forthcoming about money (I should mention, too, that I knew DeWitt Henry slightly in the mid-‘70s serving as a low-level editor for at least one issue of the magazine, but he and I lost touch when I left Boston).
By and large, however, Safe Suicide stands as a example of why creative non-fiction currently takes up such space on our bookshelves. It calls to mind the marvelous anthology The Art of the Personal Essay assembled by Philip Lopate. Himself a sharp-eyed non-fiction writer, Lopate demonstrates by his choices that such work had a distinguished roster of practitioners long before Capote et al made their noisy, albeit splendid, contributions. Art of the Personal Essay reaches back as far as Seneca including such essential figures as Montaigne, Thoreau, Woolf, and many more. To me it seems like suicide, quite unsafe, to suggest that one or two of Henry’s exercises haven’t earned a place among that number.
John Domini’s current novel is A Tomb on the Periphery. In 2009 he’ll publish a selection of his essays and reviews, The Sea-God’s Herb. See www.johndomini.com.