An Evocative New Memoir of Nature and Loss Never Quite Gets Off the Ground

Another entry in the overcrowded genre of grief memoir, A Song for the River is beautifully written but plumbs all-too-familiar territory.

The Gila River in New Mexico.
The Gila River in New Mexico. Flickr/Chris M Morris

How many grief memoirs is enough grief memoirs?

That would be an absurdly unfair question to ask an author, of course, but I’m starting to think that a reader could be forgiven for wondering. Maybe I’ve been reading off the wrong shelf, but it can sometimes seem as if grief of one flavor or another is just about all we write about anymore. There’s no need to present a case-supporting list here — just Google “grief memoir” and start stocking your own personal library of loss.

Such ubiquity is eminently understandable. Private life has always been fertile turf for loss of love, loss of hope, loss of life. No one here, after all, gets out alive.

Contemporary public life, too, is increasingly crammed with occasions for grief, from emotionally incomprehensible schoolyard massacres to the sucking-wound death throes of anything that many of us once recognized as American democracy, or, for that matter, political decency. The night that Donald Trump was elected president, I sat at home alone in the dark listening to the wracked and wrenching weeping of a neighbor. This was grief. The morning that Brett Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court by partisan henchmen, millions of Americans wept over the assassination of an institution, and for an innocence, however already sullied, lost. That was grief, too.

So I get it. Something is dying, and it changes us. And in that sense, the grief memoir may be the ultimate expression, explicitly or otherwise, of our political era.

And in a purely narrative sense as well, grief may be the most perfect vehicle ever pressed into the service of developing character, since change is the one thing that narrative most unflinchingly demands of its subjects.

A Song for the River
By Philip Connors
Cinco Puntos Press
$22.95; 256 pages

But. Do there remain any new lessons to be learned from grief aside from those we’re already intimately familiar with? That grief is necessary, idiosyncratic, painful and, ultimately, transformative?

If there are, I didn’t glean them from Philip Connors’ A Song for the River. And I’m sorry to say that, because the El Paso author writes lovely sentences. There is not an intellectual falsehood, an emotional miscue or a dishonestly plucked heartstring in this, his third book. And yet it carries — to this reader, at least — all the impact of a leaf floating down a stream. It’s pretty, if you’ll pause to watch it with patience. And you can invest a lot of meaning in that leaf, if you like. But it’s not the leaf that’s doing the work.

If grief is something that everyone can relate to, it also risks being, well, unremarkable. Connors may have sensed the threat of this creeping banality, because he packs his slim book with a Whitman’s Sampler of heart-shaped blows to the psyche. There’s the destruction that comes with a massive wildfire (Connors is a longtime fire lookout — an avocation explored in his first book); the early-life death of a sibling; the later-life death of a fellow lookout; the airplane-crash death of three teenage members of Connors’ community; an acrimonious divorce; and medical issues that lead temporarily to Connors’ own loss of mobility. Add to that the threat of a dam project on New Mexico’s Gila River — the wild but endangered waterway of the book’s title — and A Song for the River chronicles almost too much grief to keep track of.

And so, not surprisingly, and aside from an underplayed funny bit about finding love in the ashes with the friend who inspired the author’s “radical act of trust” by volunteering to massage his diseased prostate, the book is almost unrelievedly melancholic. The prevailing metaphor is “burn scar.”

As glancingly informative as it is on subjects ranging from wildland ecology to the politics of dam building, A Song for the River is a book written primarily as a bearing of witness, a fulfilling of the author’s perceived responsibility to those he’s lost.

It’s also nature writing that evokes beautifully, but seems to discover nothing, a map of a wilderness where every rock has already been turned. You can get a sense of this from an appendix, framed as “Catechism for a Fire Lookout,” that populates 8 full pages of the paperback edition with quotations. They are telling aphorisms, gemlike distillations of wisdom from the likes of Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey and Rudolfo Anaya. Unfortunately, they also contribute to the impression that Connors is walking a path already well-worn by giants.

And wouldn’t you know it, by book’s end the author has found love, come to terms with loss and rededicated his renewed energies to the flowering of wonder in the world, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Connors has the writerly good sense, of course, not to specify that hoary metaphor in so many words, but neither does he have to. You can hear those wings beating in every paragraph, struggling mightily to gain altitude, but never, somehow, quite getting off the ground.

Longtime contributor Brad Tyer is the Observer’s copy editor.

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Published at 1:16 pm CST
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