Review by Jack Smith
Henry’s newest collection of autobiographical essays, going back over twenty-five years, takes us from beginnings to endings. As the title suggests, this book is going to be more about endings than beginnings, though the two are inextricably bound. While there is no explicit existential philosophy here, this is an existential book, getting us down to rock-bottom, flesh-and-bone lives. If the devil is in the details, here we have, over a number of essays that sometimes overlap, a whole life—several lives.
In one of the finest essays in this collection, “Looking through the Knothole,” Henry focuses on his father’s alcoholism. He was a successful businessman, running a candy factory, like his father before him. John Henry began to drink, first socially, and soon spiked it up, switching to harder stuff. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, newsreels celebrated the men “who were paying the supreme sacrifice.” He was 4F, but what about his sacrifices for work and family? At first, he was clandestine about his drinking, then he drank “brazenly” around his wife. He became physically abusive toward her. As the progress of his alcoholism advanced, he started an affair with a young girl, age seventeen, making her his private secretary. Finally, through his wife’s intervention, he started with AA. But after a while, the doctor said he was a hopeless case. John Henry said he’d ruined his family; he wanted to start a new one. He couldn’t stand to look at his children. His oldest son, Jack, drove him to the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia. Later, he called and said to come and get him.
Was this the ending? Henry writes: “I can only imagine this John Henry. I search for him in Wayne and its history; in the local newspaper accounts; in letters and journals; in public records; in household artifacts; in photographs and home movies: and in studies of alcoholism.” He felt compelled to know: “I search for him in the alcoholic breakdowns of close friends. I search for him in tests of my own mettle as a man, a husband, and a father.”
If Henry’s account was based on memory, one could take the position of Bruce Hood in The Self Illusion that memory is not recorded but “reconstructed.” But Henry has based his narrative on careful, thorough research, not memory. He was seventeen when his father told him about the “bad time.”
We see his father’s abandonment of his family, both literally and emotionally, as in Henry’s other works. As a memoirist, he is frank and blunt. He spares no punches in representing his alcoholic, philandering father just as he was—not as he might have wished him to be.
In my interview of Augusten Burroughs for The Writer, he stated: “You can’t lie to yourself if you’re going to be a memoirist. Our personal failures and limitations and weak or fragile spots are the most interesting things to read about.” The same can be said for writing about others, in this case family—in this case one’s father.
We see the same unflinching regard for the truth in the other essays in this collection.
In “Guns in My Life,” Henry portrays his oldest brother, Jack, as one quite unlike himself. While he became a professor and a writer, Jack flunked out of Cornell, having no interest in academic subjects. He grew up with two passions: guns and cars. He had a vast collection of guns, and he built his own car to do hill racing. As a child, DeWitt was influenced by Jack’s interest in guns and hunting. With a .22 he borrowed from Jack, he went hunting for groundhogs and rabbits. Unbeknownst to others, he practiced shooting at logs in the basement.
Jack went out West, to Colorado, for his asthma. He built an excavating business. He developed and manufactured a highly efficient pipe-layer and a number of straddlers, selling them in several states. He was a highly inventive man.
Yet he faced a lot of unhappiness in his first marriage and had to deal with sons who were affected by the working class culture of “hard-drinking brawling” and “women-chasing.” And then his health declined, with acute exacerbation of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. He stopped smoking and “occasionally needed oxygen.” But then specialists put him on a “steady regimen of oxygen, antibiotics, steroids, and other medicines.” Steroids helped but damaged his immune system. One mustn’t get close to him—no touching, no hugs. He had an oxygen pump, an oxygen tether “long enough to follow him through the house.” He barely ate. No appetite.
Henry visited him, along with his son, shortly before his death. When they went shooting clay pigeons at a private shooting club, Jack carried a portable oxygen bottle. The outlook for Jack got grimmer. He spent ninety percent of his time in bed. Finally, he was gone. He’d been in an accident and hit a tree. DeWitt believed this was no accident; it was deliberate.
After all, what kind of life was it to be bedridden most of the day, fearful of germs—all the things he had done with his life no longer possible, totally gone? What was that life? “The former race car driver, the pilot, the master mechanic and inventor . . .” He saw him as despairing at a life which had absolutely no quality left: “After four years’ ordeal, Jack would have had enough.”
We have to ask: Is this just a story of a family member, a beloved brother, who cycled through from a robust beginning to a sense of utter bleakness and despair? In Death, Cancer, Madness, Meaning, short story writer and essayist Walter Cummins states that whether or not cancer is ultimately cured, just like tuberculosis, “something else will get us in the end. That’s one price of being alive.” Something will get us. Something will end us. This fact is borne out in every human life, from cradle to grave, but in Henry’s narrative with its fullness and richness of character, we relate to this existential fact viscerally. In the beginning is the ending.
In “Long Distance,” Henry portrays his brother Chuck, his brother who became a surgeon, a very dedicated one, saving many lives. His focus was on “the good of others.” This is how he wanted to use his “gifts,” one of which was being a “diagnostician with a sixth sense.” A great surgeon, his profession nonetheless took a turn for the worse when he became embittered with malpractice insurance and “trumped-up suits.” He ended his practice, causing a number of patients to feel that he had forsaken them. He didn’t entirely quit the medical field, however; he went to Nairobi and did over three-hundred operations.
A divorce, after a very bad marriage, brought more misery to his life, and he moved into a condo, where he was isolated, except for a new love interest, but they did not live together, but in separate condos. Henry gives us the sense of a man cast adrift, making drunken, long-distance calls. A very private, lonely man.
What surprised him was his brother’s lung cancer—being a cancer surgeon, how was this possible? Chuck’s life did not come to a good end. His three sons gathered in the hospital with their inheritance in mind. Henry writes: “Nothing had mattered to him more than the idea of family and yet his family had fallen apart in his hands. He had been betrayed. He had been exploited. And then his true gifts as a surgeon had been spurned.”
Chuck’s own view of his life, or anybody’s, was a stoic one. “He had a bleak view of history, society, and the potential life. We come; we go.” His sister, Judy, “saw Chuck ending up with empty hands, wanting and needing love and faced with greed instead.”
The title of this essay, “Long Distance,” crystalizes the alienation of a man who intended good but was left with a lot of bad. If, ironically, he helped others with life-saving surgery and killed himself with his smoking habit, he nonetheless is what we call a sympathetic character in fiction. For all his stoicism, he makes me think of Eliot’s “lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows.” And “Only connect,” according to Forster. In his declining days, this was precisely what Chuck, in his drunken state, was trying to do, long distance.
This collection gives us not only portraits of Henry’s family, but also things in his life that he was active in, or caught up in, during childhood that changed later. If he tried to compete as a swimmer when he was growing up, he realized in college that “swimming was too difficult a sport.” Golf was “central” to his family back in the 1950’s, with Chuck the true master, an expert to emulate, but at Amherst Henry gave up golf to emphasize his writing. There was another aspect to this, the class privilege that has historically been attached to this game. Reflecting on this, he realized that “I can’t afford a country-club membership, even if I wanted one (I don’t); nor do I subscribe to the dream of privilege, caste and measure, which golf suggests.” We see embryonic reflections on this pride of privilege, an antagonism to it on his part, early on in his golf beginnings, back in the 1950s.
He ends this collection with “Father of the Bride,” his sense of well-being over his daughter’s marriage. It’s an upbeat ending in contrast with other essay endings. But “in contrast with” is probably not the right phrasing. Henry’s vision is complex: good and bad are inextricably mixed in life as well as in this collection. Joy is followed by woe; woe is followed by joy.