Jack Hitt is the author, most recently, of “Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character.”
By Alan Lightman
247 pp. $25.95
Back when NASA ruled the Earth, Alan Lightman was a 13-year-old kid, and in his Memphis back yard he built the coolest rocket. He concocted his own fuel mixture and ignited the thing with a flashbulb from a Brownie camera. There was a tiny astronaut’s capsule, of course, which held a garden lizard. He’d need to get the lizard back down to Earth, NASA-style, so he packed in a parachute and devised a way to separate the capsule from the rocket at its peak.
A small explosive was connected by a vial of mercury which, upright, offered no contact. When the rocket hit its apogee and naturally shifted into a horizontal position, the mercury flowed across the vial and connected the wires. The capsule blew free and clear, as planned, and floated successfully back down — except that the final discharge burned off the lizard’s tail.
Ingenious, really, but the way Lightman tells it in his insightful memoir, “Screening Room,” it was like that old Scottish joke: “Do they call me MacGregor the shipbuilder? Nay!” Instead, the boy with the sly workarounds is still hounded by friends to tell the one about the “friggin’ lizard.”
In any other memoir, this story might be presented as some crucial life turn that drove Lightman into the world where he wound up: theoretical physics. But “Screening Room” — the latest book from the author of “Einstein’s Dreams”— violates most of the tedious conventions of the memoir genre. The book is brilliantly observed and poignantly written, and instead of going for all that epiphany and revelation,the typical payoff in so much autobiography these days, Lightman strives for something different — something, I’d argue, that’s distinctly Southern.
The South is a place, we’re always told, and the north is a direction. Actually, that line is typically followed by some gooey mention of a “sense of place,” and soon enough there are heaping helpings of biscuits and valor and moss. “Screening Room” is refreshingly free of the standard Dixie gunk. Lightman’s book is about what really defines the South — the real common denominator in our contested little matrix of blacks and whites, Jews and gentiles: family.
For this book, Lightman returned to Memphis to spend time with his nonagenarian father and a hilarious cast of Jewish aunts and uncles and cousins, all now willing to talk. Instead of just cataloguing those stories, Lightman has written a book that owes something to William Faulkner but more, say, to Peter Taylor. He has shaped a generational narrative of the Lightmans, an argument, practically — animated by the Southerner’s desire to capture the whole damn thing as a coherent and entertaining story, the only immortality back home that matters.
Lightman’s bluff, candid prose turns little moments from the past into fresh, emotionally harrowing history. His dad had fought during the controversial invasion of Salerno, Italy, in World War II, commanding a small fleet assigned to storm a beach. The Germans were assaulting them from both land and air: “In a five-second decision, Dad signaled his six boats to turn around and to head for a less hostile territory two miles up the coast.” A few days later, he was accused of disobeying orders and costing lives. The unspoken word “coward” hovered in the air. Then, the author writes: “It was the late 1980s, and I was home for a cousin’s wedding. Dad said to me: ‘I wish I had died at that beach in Salerno.’ ”
But the story pushes on from there, into the author’s inept silence at his father’s soul-crushing confession and the bewilderment that comes from seeing clearly something almost never seen — a spike in time for one man, around which the rest of his life has eddied and twisted. The book is landmarked by these big moments — his parents’ cold marriage, his mom’s suicide attempt. But the smaller moments are there, and their detailed and familiar accounting is deeply satisfying. And then there are everyone’s numerous affairs — all set in that pre-sexual-revolution era when sex was deliciously repressed and lust an unpublic force of farcical power.
There’s a “Mad Men” ambiance in these pages and those times. The women “sweating under the blow dryers” and gossiping “about inadequate husbands, sassy children, and bathing suits,” while the men at the country club “sat around naked in their locker room, the mirrors steamy from hot showers” and while the young author “could sit at the pool bar and order endless Dr Peppers and Coca-Colas and charge them to my parents’ account.” These were the days when Morris Kahn could stumble into a car drunk with Missy Nelkin, with both claiming that neither realized the other person was not their spouse: “No one knows what happened next, but neither party contacted the outside world for over an hour.” This was a time when such things happened: “Some of my relatives slyly went off for ‘little drives’ with their secretaries or bosses, calling back a week later to have someone water the plants.”
The real South of Lightman’s youth comes to life on page after page. After young Georgina, the niece of the household maid, Blanche, achieves the grand title of Princess of Jubilee, the Jubilee being the black counterpart to the prestigious Cotton Carnival, she goes to a good college. When a professor ridicules her ambition “dressed up like Cinderella,” white students harass her until she drops out and gets a grunt job (perpetuating the economic servitude of her parents). Georgina tells this story at a Lightman gathering, and Mom is shocked, but not before her friend mutters, “What’s a colored girl going to do with a college degree anyway?” Georgina hears the remark and bursts into tears: “Mother tried to comfort Blanche. But there was nothing to be done. Blanche and Georgina drove away in a rusted old Ford, the red eyes of the taillights trailing down our long driveway to the street and then out along Cherry until they were faint dots in the distance.”
Another writer might have tried to redeem this moment, make something righteous of it. But, friend, that’s just the way it was, and Alan Lightman is testifying. Over there, House of Atreus-like anguish. Over here, gin-soaked insouciance.
The great animating figure in this generational epic, though, is the author’s grandfather, M.A. Lightman, who one day saw a line of people waiting to get into a storefront movie theater. He started his own and grew it into a chain, the wealth from which is still sending Lightmans out into the world. M.A. was smart. He kept his theaters up to date with the newest sound technology — Vitaphone, Movietone. He realized, as did the smartest of those early proprietors, that popcorn was a profit center. And he overcame the anti-Semitism of his time. When he became head of the Motion Picture Theater Owners of America, he had enough of the showman in him to convene the largely gentile crowd and wow them with a surprise visit from Marlene Dietrich.
M.A. was also a nationally ranked bridge player. His natural detachment and concentration often found a home at the bridge table, where he sat “like a jet plane taxiing for three hours on the runway.”
Lightman coins a term for big family figures such as his grandfather: phasma, a mix of the Kabbalah idea of gilgul neshamot (the cycle of souls) with zechut avot (merit of our fathers) and a touch of the dybbuk (evil spirit). The key feature of a phasma is that his existence not only affects the cascade of future generations but alters the past as well. Joseph Kennedy, Prescott Bush — these are phasmas. Exploring this idea into the crannies and cul-de-sacs of aunts’ and uncles’ lives and a wealth of holiday anecdotes is what enlarges and makes the book whole.
M.A. created a screening room in his house, a little theater away from the theater. (It’s where young Alan met Elvis Presley one day.) The screening room “also became the preferred venue for parties, small musical events, and illicit romantic liaisons.” It wasn’t just that M.A. made lots of money but that his phasma was a private show itself, outlining the lives of relatives and friends for generations to come.
At one gathering, the author’s cousin Lennie refers to M.A.’s longtime secretary, Fannie Slepian, as “sad.” A few conversations later, we learn that Slepian had worked all her life for him and kept a picture of him on her desk after he died. “The way she pined over M.A. all those years and never got married,” says Lennie, the phasma’s vivacious niece and the book’s impetuously reliable raconteur. Slepian died an old maid because the phasma wanted it that way. Lennie doesn’t pull punches. “M.A. knew,” she says, summing up. “He knew the power he had over women. He chained Fannie to him and threw away the key.”
The power of this man all happens during this one era in Memphis. It was a time of Jewish assimilation, when a friend might ask about getting a “mezuzah, but one that is not too Jewish.” Then after you get one, you might, like cousin Abi, put it on the front door right above “a fabulous mosaic floor embedded with a confederate flag in colored tiles.” It was a time just after Memphis was known mainly as a town of “mules and duels” and before it became notorious for Martin Luther King Jr.’s stay at the Lorraine Hotel.
Sure, it’s a white man’s story and it’s a Jew’s story. But transcending both of those narratives, it’s a Southerner’s story. Everyone in Dixie’s little matrix of identity will find nothing but page after page of aching familiarity here. And of course, it ends as all books by Southern exiles must end. Wolffean. “I will always live here, but I cannot live here.”