Friday, October 4, 2013

I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place

Howard Norman is best known for his books, The Bird Artist, The Museum Guard, and The Northern Lights, two of which were finalists for the National Book Award. So to read his new memoir, I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place, was to be privileged to see something of his early life, to vicariously experience the beautiful Vermont habitat, and ultimately, to glimpse into the author's inner landscape.

The book is divided into five sections-- each ending with an event that seminally marks Norman. The book opens in 1964 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The author is 15. One gets a sense of the precocious adolescent as he watches his drifter father through the window of the town bookmobile. The reader has an equally strong sense of place as he describes the principals in Dykstra's Apothecary--Mr. Dykstra, Marcelline, the soda jerk, and her boyfriend, Robert Boxer, the mixed race son of Mr. Dykstra. There is something almost Huck Finn-like about the young Howard cutting school and watching his English teacher skinny-dipping with her fiance in Reeds Lake. That he dares to write about it in an essay for that same teacher only shows the chutspah of that adolescent.

In the same understated manner, Norman tells of the misadventure in which he tries to trap a swan.  Using methods explained in an interlibrary loan book he snags from the book drop (North American Indian Waterfowl Traps, Weirs, and Snares), he accidentally kills a beautiful swan. When Pinnie Olner, the librarian and his boss, tries to get him to admit to the crime, Norman tries to pin it on the person who initially checked the book out. Still, the memory of watching the swan drowning stays with him even now.

I hadn't meant to kill the swan.  It was a beautiful, mean bird, and spent nights in my secret haunt.  Nearly fifty years later, I still hear its strange guttural exhalation; fifty years of hapless guilt and remorse.  So often I close my eyes and picture the water closing over. (p. 36-37)

This unnatural death foreshadows others to come--the death of John Lennon in 1980, which Norman hears over the radio while transcribing Inuit stories in the Canadian Arctic; the death of his artist/girlfriend, Mathilde, in a plane crash; and last, the murder-suicide that occurs in his own home in Washington, D.C. Yet each section has other elements--mundane, everyday events that couch the horrific. We never really see Mathilde as a three-dimensional character, for example. We only observe that the 20-something Howard is completely smitten with her. "Your Mathilde's got bigger appetites for life than you have," "Uncle" Isador tells him. God in heaven, you can't even read half the same menu she's reading..." (p. 55)

In the final section, "The Healing Powers of the Western Oystercatcher," Howard Norman explores the tragedy that befell him and his wife when the poet renting their home in Washington, D.C. killed her son and then killed herself. How does one go back to the house where such an event happened?  How does one come to terms with it? Or does one?

The author explores these existential questions, presenting facts- psychological and criminal- and weighs them against the notion of evil. He calls upon his years spent with the Inuit tribes and has a shaman flown in to cast a spell.  He has his rabbi read Talmud. Both religious men are trying to harness whatever is good and recast it into the house.

The final pages find the author ten years after the horrific event. He has finally come to a separate peace. In the end, nature and his love of birds has brought him the harmony he has sought for so long.

I watched my oystercatcher for roughly fifty hours on my visit (to Point Reyes National Seashore). The oystercatcher's existence offered me a hypnotic passage of time, a vicarious connection to the sea, and focus, distraction, sorrow, laughter, tears, all helping to move me through and escape the grasp of servitude to the fixed notion that only pain and sorrow are real truths, and that joy exists only to be subject to doubt.  That is, at least in some provisional way, after all those hours in the realm of the oystercatcher, I was feeling joy as opposed to a simulacrum of joy, a condition that just might warrant use of the word healing. (p. 192)

I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place is an ode to the myriad experiences that make up a life.

To hear a wonderful interview with Howard Norman, click on the link below.  Enjoy...

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