Reflections in a Golden Navel Spike Gillespie’s Contribution to Memoir Lit BY DICK HOLLAND ALL THE WRONG MEN AND ONE PERFECT BOY: A Memoir. By Spike Gillespie. Simon & Schuster. 271 pages. $23.00. ately self-absorption has been taking some licks. A couple of months back the always self-satisfied New York Times Mag azine devoted a special issue to what they called “The Me Millennium.” The concept was muddled, but appeared to be that the editors pulled together some yuppies who admitted to bei: g self-centered, a sin that if left unconfessed might bode ill for the next thousand years. The fact that these essays on celebrity, selfishness, and the narcissism of pregnancy were placed in the middle of ads for $10,000 watches and Ralph Lauren cashmere coverlets tended to mute the theme, planting the idea that once this little guilt purge was over, it would be okay to resume shopping. To scold the American privileged class about their selfregard makes about as much sense as objecting to Moby Dick because you don’t like to fish. The literary branch of this nineties obsession is the confessional memoir, and it too has taken its lumps, although fiction writers all over the land are abandoning coming-of-age novels for memoirs, because the agents and the publishers know that these things sell better. So perhaps this is the era of the inauthentic memoir, or at least the premature one although a case can be made that, after the heroic generation of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, autobiographical fiction and non-fiction is America’s great contribution to the world of writing. Family considerations are intrinsic to autobiography, and after World War II, nothing expressed an America that could relax and become inward and depressed more than the dramas of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Norman Mailer announced the age of self-absorption in his straight-forwardly titled Advertisements For Myself By the fifties, a new generation of American writers had pretty much taken over the family saga with confessional texts and subtexts of deep neurosis and original power. This brilliantly unbalanced generation of poets and prose writers included John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, John Cheever, and J.D. Salinger. The charm of the modern confessional voice presented itself in the opening of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, confidentially narrated by Holden Caulfield, a suicidal teenager: If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all I’m not saying that but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty rundown and had to come out here and take it easy. The renditions of the dysfunctional American family presented by John Cheever and Sylvia Plath were so charged and brutal that the pain expressed was tangible. Cheever may or may not have intended his letters and journals to see the are presented with the portrait of a man miserable with his faithlessness to his wife, his children, his church, and his muse. Read in conjunction with his stories of love and failure in the suburbs of New York City, the reader is able to piece together the moral background of his fictional accomplishment. Somewhat mollifying the intensity in the personal work is Cheever’s humor, as in a letter written to a friend about a disastrous family vacation, written from the viewpoint of the family dog. \(While the Cheevers are alternately drinking, fighting, and wandering off, the dog sensibly comBut it is Sylvia Plath who is the diva of the literature of selfloathing. After several botched attempts, Plath finally managed to kill herself in February, 1963, leaving behind her husband Ted oversaw the publication of Ariel, her shocking final book of poems. Robert Lowell, an eminent poet who had taught Plath \(and no menAriel and described the book as “the autobiography of a fever.” Indeed the book burns both with poetic chance-taking but also with an incendiary hatred for the poet’s father, a German immigrant that she describes in “Daddy”: I have always been scared of you, with your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo. And your neat moustache And your Aryan eye, bright blue. Panzer-man, panzer-man, 0 You Not God but a swastika So black no sky could squeak through. Every woman adores a Fascist, The boot in the face, the brute Brute heart of a brute like you. By the end she has cast him out. There’s a stake in your fat black heart And the villagers never liked you. They are dancing and stamping on you. 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER DECEMBER 24, 1999
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