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Memoirs

Searching for eternal truths, from the wilds of Vermont to the frozen Arctic.

By Juliet Wittman
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page BW10

In Losing the Garden: The Story of a Marriage, (Shoemaker & Hoard, $24) Laura Waterman describes her life as shaped to an astonishing extent by her husband, Guy Waterman. Guy was a serious climber, and Laura learned to climb with him. Inspired by the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s and the writings of Helen and Scott Nearing, the couple bought a parcel of land in Vermont and lived there in a cabin without electricity or running water for 30 years. They called this place Barra.

Guy was an obsessive organizer, sorter and counter. He made lists of birds spotted, daily tasks (planting, harvesting, canning, fence building, sugar mapling), weather events and harvest yields. He counted every single berry plucked from the blueberry bushes. It's clear that at Barra there was no lingering over coffee or taking long strolls across the fields.

Unfortunately, the charming, erudite jazz musician whom Laura had fallen in love with suffered from the black dog of depression. Like Guy, Laura had come from a home distorted by alcoholism. She bought into his worldview. The couple were extraordinarily close. They read aloud to each other at dinner -- a solution that Guy devised because Laura ate so slowly that he became bored waiting for her to finish. They even wrote books and articles in tandem, sitting across from each other at their wooden table. No children intruded on this marriage -- his second -- and though Guy had once been a speechwriter for Richard Nixon, he and Laura never read or listened to the news.

Despite this extreme closeness, despite the fact that she studied Guy as intently as farmers study the sky for incoming storms, Laura never understood her husband's demons. Although he was never violent toward her, she was afraid of his temper: When he made a small mistake in writing or carpentry, he radiated anger. Much later, writing after Guy's death, Laura tested the word "abusive" on the page. Guy had lost two sons and was rarely in touch with his third. Bill Waterman disappeared in 1973; his brother John, a noted climber (who appears in Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild ), apparently went into the mountains to die in 1981. Their father's response was an odd paralysis of will. He did not join the search for either son. Now and then, he floated a sad, futile hypothesis: "Bill's off on an adventure. . . . Perhaps Bill's living in an Indian village."

Losing the Garden begins as 67-year-old Guy is about to walk into the mountains himself, intending to freeze to death. The couple has planned for this and discussed how Laura would live afterward. Mirroring Guy's passivity, and despite her deep love for him, Laura makes no attempt to stop her husband from committing suicide.

It's tempting to criticize these choices, but no one can really understand another's life or has the right to judge it. Had Laura dedicated herself to a social cause, art form or religion in the way that she dedicated herself to Guy, we might have thought her efforts heroic. Laura helped Guy live as he needed to live, and when he could no longer continue, she helped him die as he wanted to die. "Bake bread, Laura," he said, as he prepared to leave the house for the last time, and so she did, imagining every step of his journey as she stood at the counter kneading.

The hard part came later, when Laura tried to understand both what had happened and her own part in it. I suspect it's because she hasn't finished the task that the book has certain flaws, and some parts are unfocused or repetitive. But there's also a clear-sighted honesty here, and an admirable cool stoicism.

By Himself

James Atlas has made the discovery most people make as they pass through the portal of middle age: Everyone dies. In light of this knowledge, he sets out to evaluate his work and examine his life. He deals, in the process, with the big topics: death, books, home, money, God. Some of his essays in My Life in the Middle Ages (HarperCollins, $25.95) are telling; others feel no deeper than the average magazine article.

Atlas has led a privileged life -- he is wryly aware of this -- and his milieu is narrow. He defines himself as a member of New York's "lower upper middle class": people who own country homes, albeit in unfashionable areas, and who, although far more affluent than most Americans, deeply envy the truly wealthy. The least interesting -- and most self-absorbed -- chapters deal with Atlas's interest in Buddhism, his reading habits and his sense that his physical prowess is vanishing as he ages.

Still, his writing is skilled and accessible, with many compelling moments. Atlas writes feelingly about place, providing an exhilarating view of New York as seen in the writing of Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, Theodore Dreiser and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He describes furnishing his country house with photographs of old London because "they unlock a longing to have lived other lives in other places and other times; but there's some deeper feeling, too. In my imagination, they represent an escape from the relentless struggle Americans must engage in to create their own identities."

The most appealing passages are those in which Atlas confesses his jealousies and obsession with failure. We feel for him when he describes the devastating reviews that greeted his first and only novel. And it's impossible not to empathize when he describes his incredulity at being fired by a magazine editor: "In some region of my mind, I thought he was just floating an idea; it was hypothetical. I was welcome to stay if I wanted."

Gained in Translation

Howard Norman's In Fond Remembrance of Me: A Memoir of Myth and Uncommon Friendship in the Arctic (North Point, $21) was put together long after the events it depicts. Although wonderfully written, it feels rather slight.

Norman went to Churchill, Manitoba, in 1977 to transcribe stories about Noah's Ark told by an Inuit elder named Mark Nuqac. Each of Nuqac's narratives begins with Noah's Ark drifting into Hudson's Bay and becoming icebound. Intransigent, enraged, Noah refuses Inuit offers of help, with varying outcomes. Though Noah is always a figure of fun, the tales also communicate his suffering and terrible sense of isolation.

The clash of cultures is profound. When Noah tells the Inuit about his one God, they fall about laughing: In their world, there are many powerful spirits, including the local shaman. Over and over again, the Inuit express wonder at the strangeness of the Ark's animals and the fact that these creatures are not used as food. The stories are told baldly, without ornament, but they are resonant. The image of a giraffe picking and skittering its way across a waste of ice is both oddly beautiful and a powerful evocation of a being out of place. And though they view these exotic animals as simply walking food, the Inuit seem to respect their otherness, giving them an odd dignity. The woolly mammoths vanished underground, Nuqac says in one story, because they were so offended by Noah's inept attempt to hunt them.

Nuqac didn't like Norman and barely tolerated the interview process. But he adored another visiting researcher, Helen Tanizaki, who was translating the same folktales into Japanese. Norman, too, was deeply impressed with Tanizaki, who was 10 years older than he at the time of their meeting, and suffering from an incurable cancer. He describes her passion for bird watching, her clarity of thought, her acerbic humor, as well as a night he spent trying to read the pain-wracked Tanizaki to sleep.

Norman's prose is beautiful, and he even tells us early on how to read his book: "This book has thematic and structural asymmetries; it is comprised, if you will, of overlapping panels of reality, certain words and phrases which came to have for me something of an iconic presence ricochet between chapters, in an enlivening way, I hope." And yet he has not found a way of making either Helen Tanizaki or these memories real and potent for the reader.

Spirits in the Dark

In American Ghosts: A Memoir (Beacon, $24), David Plante describes himself as "a lowly part Indian Canuck Catholic American." He grew up as a member of an old-fashioned Catholic parish in Providence, R.I. His father was silent and brooding, his mother desperate to escape the stifling parish. Plante suffered childish nightmares of Indian faces at his window; he was obsessed with the ghosts of his ancestors. His great-grandmother, he writes, "was invisible to me, but in her unimaginable difference, she pulled at me so strongly I felt that if I gave in to her pull, I would be lost." The nuns of his childhood were also mysterious dark mothers, and his entire world was suffused with a sensuality so intense that he trembled when a nun helped him into costume for the school play.

Although Plante writes feelingly of his first affair -- in Spain, with a young man called Öci -- and of his lifelong companion, Nikos, the men in this memoir are far less vividly drawn than the women. There's Plante's eccentric, embarrassing, broken Aunt Cora, who wanted to be a nun but was turned away because she was excessively devout, and who spent the rest of her life cleaning up after her abusive husband and enduring his blows in order to earn eternal life. Best of all, there's Sonia Orwell, George Orwell's widow, whom Plante met through the urbane Nikos, with her tendency to excoriate her dinner guests and her insistence that only the dishonest and feeble-minded could believe in God.

Having turned from his childhood Catholicism, Plante has spent the rest of his life searching for transcendence -- which, for him, is located in objects and images, the evidence of his senses. American Ghosts, a long meditation on this search and on identity, is full of passages like the following: "Was it because the beach pebble, the bunch of grapes, the coffee cup, and the act of lovemaking had, in fact, their own reality, a reality that appeared to me unreal because, being unique, I couldn't get to it with my generalizing mind, so the reality existed with great and singular intensity but was impenetrable to me?"

There's only so much of this a reader should be expected to take. •

Juliet Wittman is the theater critic for Westword in Denver and a regular contributor to Book World.


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