A journal dedicated to the nonfiction narrative, River Teeth celebrated its fourteenth year anniversary with its Fall 2012 edition. In many of the essays in this volume, the concepts of privacy and identity, which its editor Dan Lehman mentions in his notes, become a weighty trade-off for the benefit of nonfiction. The thirteen narratives that compose the volume are unique in subject matter and voice but share an artistic spirit, a deliberate frame of a world otherwise chaotic.
For example, take “Selling Out in the Writing of Memoir,” an essay by Lee Martin. Essentially the memoir of a memoir as prepared for an ethics course on the implications of disclosure, the narrative traces the memoirist’s social journey from the vantage of confessor. Suddenly the components of a tale—the instrumental parents, the first kiss, the classroom—become figures in an artful arrangement of facts. The retribution comes in the form of a dysphoric aunt: “My aunt didn’t know, nor did I, that I’d keep selling out the family, having just now published my third memoir. Had she known what was coming down the pike, she might have shot me. If I’d survived, I would have told that story, too.” Funny and unapologetic, Martin transforms the ordinary into the sublime and makes me eager to discover his confessions in all three of his memoirs. “Memoir is as much about the future as it is the past,” he notes, almost seeming like a kind of Illinois-bred Rick Bragg—navigating the terrifying rope of humor and insight without losing the storyline.
Excellently paired with Martin’s essay is Andre Dubus III’s “Writing & Publishing a Memoir: What in the Hell Have I Done?” Under Dubus’s spell you arrive in a tough suburb of Boston with a devoted mother and a broken family—all under the scrim of the reputation of a world-famous, absent father. Dubus details the questions posed by members of his childhood community and the perceptions of the obligation of silence to those who witnessed his growing up and perhaps played a part in it. Loved ones are illuminated for their crises and shortcomings in a tale Dubus felt obligated to publish. Both Dubus and Martin approach the memoir from deeply personal convictions. It may be well-trod ground to consider the ethics of exposure post-publication, but these writers manage to illustrate the emotional landscape of “betrayal” and “selling out” without SWOT charts and a well-cited authority.
Eli Sanders (“The Shooter”) pursues a different approach to personal disclosure, preserving the identity of an adult who shot two people as a juvenile in Sanders’s high school and escaped a lifetime penalty under second-chance criminal code. Sanders, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, is careful to withhold details about the subject just as he elegantly avoids the editorializing that might come with a near-death experience. Sanders lets the man’s actions evoke the essence of his character: the shooter requests financial compensation for the interview, and when he promises to come out of the darkness and speak to Sanders, he disappears into the Seattle rain. Sanders’s story is not just about a terrifying experience in his life; it is also timely and vital as the increase in school shootings escalates. He orders the text in vignettes so that you can literally explore the wide-lens view and the personal. A compelling, urgent story is delivered in clean, disciplined prose.
Leslie Stainton also elegantly weaves between time and place in “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” illustrating a dramatic family history through the chords of a family piano. For the honeyed moment we segue into the dreams of old composers, broken-hearted lawyers, sutured lineage. I kept reading it because the story was good, but it was good because Stainton wove in an incredible tension. There are no explosives or bright lights casting brutal, portentous shadows, but there are crimes and punishments (not always effected in that order). I like the tempo of her sentences and find myself wanting to diagram them, to sneak beneath the music to the structures of the chords.
I recommend Robert Atwan’s “Notes Towards the Definition of an Essay” as it offers a systemic look at a genre invented by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, who, Atwan explains, “. . . purposefully defied the formal conventions of classification, division, logical progression, etc. that characterized serious prose. And he thus established an ironic authorial posture: the art of his essays would be grounded in the illusion of their artlessness.” Invoking Montaigne, Atwan sketches out ways to see an essay, how to hear it, in an elegant conversation with the essays around it in the journal. All seem to defy definition just as Atwan suggests a good essay does.