Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

Dicey Drama in Haiti

Looking for treasure but finding trouble

By Anne Blythe

Given the political fracture in this country and the intensified drumbeat of questions about the survival of democracy, it might seem daunting to tuck into Ben Fountain’s Devil Makes Three: A Novel.

The sheer size of the North Carolina native’s latest book — 531 pages — is intimidating enough. When you throw in that it’s a deep dive into life in Haiti immediately following the 1991 military coup that sent President Jean-Bertrande Aristide into exile, you might be tempted to put this novel about abusive power, excessive greed and dictatorship back on the shelf and save it for a less divisive time.

Don’t do that. Instead, open Fountain’s work of fiction. Let the story pull you from a once blissful beachfront through streets littered with butchered corpses and the headless body of a mayor, to crumbling estates, voodoo priestesses and treasure hunts on the turquoise waters lapping against the former French slave colony fallen under the rule of an oppressive military regime. A political thriller and adventure-filled page-turner, Devil Makes Three explores a country in turmoil from different angles through four main characters in their 20s.

Matt Amaker is a rootless American college dropout drawn to Haiti with unrealized ambitions after circulating through the Caribbean as a “dive gypsy.” Alix Variel, the ambitious and beguiling son of a prominent Haitian family, persuades Matt to come with him to Haiti to start a dive shop of their own catering to a wave of the expected tourism before the coup upended the country’s dreams of democracy and prompted international trade embargoes.

Despite the upheaval, Matt and Alix have not given up all hope on ScubaRave being a successful business, and turn their attention to hunting Conquistador treasure and artifacts in the under-explored ocean waters off Haiti.

“Haiti has treasure,” Alix tells Matt while they are smoking a joint and pondering their future.

One wreck he was aware of had as many as 12 cannon among the wreckage. If they were bronze, they could attract high-end collectors, deep-pocketed people who might pay as much as one Saudi oil prince had — $600,000 for a pair of cannon.

“Why the hell are we messing with scuba,” Alix asked. “We should be hunting treasure all the time.”

“Because it’s a really stupid business, that’s why,” Matt responded. “A few people make some money and everybody else loses their shirt. It’s like Vegas, the lottery, it’s mainly just luck. You happen to dig over here instead of a quarter mile over there, that’s the difference between a fortune and wasting your life. Screw that. It’s too random for me . . . Treasure is trouble.”

That prognostication is a driving line of the novel, which also focuses on Audrey O’Donnell, a rookie CIA officer, a sharp and aspiring government agent also known as Shelly Graver who quickly finds herself involved in ethically questionable drug deals and agency-supported operations to keep Aristide out of power.

All the while, she wrestles with the part of her job that calls for manipulating people, even as she’s romantically involved with Alix. Audrey’s belief that it is in Haiti’s best interest “to integrate into the global economy, which last time she checked, was overwhelmingly trending toward the free market American model” puts her in direct opposition to Misha, Alix’s sister and a love interest of Matt’s.

Misha returns to Haiti in the midst of researching and writing a thesis at Brown University with a working subtitle “Psychological Rupture in the Literature of the Black Atlantic.” Instead of going back to school while her homeland is in tumult, she goes to work at a public clinic where the CIA tries to mine the medical records of her patients to test their political loyalties. “The coup d’etat had unfolded as a kind of twisted affirmation of her still gestating dissertation,” Fountain writes.

In a country where the minimum wage was $5 a day in the early ’90s, Misha wrestled with “the contradiction of the lived experience” in her homeland. “Once again Haiti was instructing the world, pushing ahead of the historical curve, and it was paying the price in blood and grief,” Fountain writes. “Why take to the streets if you are already free, as you’d been told every day of your life you were. Forget your slack stomach and aching back, your weary mind. Whatever else might be said or alleged of him, Aristide gave voice to, made visible, the contradiction of the lived experience of the country.”

Despite their differences, Misha and Audrey come together to help save Matt and Alix from the throes of dangerous and misguided adventures brought about by their attempts to “float up” bronze cannon. The men find themselves being arrested by soldiers on “conspiracy to commit terrorism charges” and are thrown in prison.

Haiti’s top general, however, has a keen interest in scuba diving and treasure hunting, and springs Matt from prison on a working furlough to help find Christopher Columbus’ Santa Maria before the 500th anniversary of its sinking in December 1492.

By making Haiti the focus of Devil Makes Three, Fountain is able to weave themes of power, politics, race, history, capitalism, globalism, voodoo and the legacy of plantation slavery throughout the novel using the characters’ dialogue as they down rum and tonics, smoke marijuana and feast on creole dishes.

Whether it’s Fountain’s description of Port-au-Prince as a city with “a dull orange haze hanging over everything like a fulminating cloud of Cheetos dust” or his tightly knit storylines, this Dallas-based lawyer-turned-writer, born in Chapel Hill, raised in Elizabeth City and Cary, gives the reader a lot to digest.  PS

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades covering city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

The Scars of Our History

Will revisionism invade the book world?

By Stephen E. Smith

The world is surely shifting beneath our feet. What was Fort Bragg is now Fort Liberty. In many small Southern towns, the obligatory statues memorializing the Confederate dead have come tumbling down with a predictable thud. Even the most revered Southern monument of them all, the edifice of Gen. Robert E. Lee, a bronze equestrian statue with the South’s greatest general mounted on his horse Traveller, was unceremoniously plucked from its imposing pedestal and melted down for scrap.

So here’s the question: In a new world where book banning, the most blatant and least effective form of censorship, is all the snazz, how do revisionist attitudes affect the publishing of books about the Civil War? It’s probably too early to say, but two new offerings are testing the market. Elizabeth R. Varon’s Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South, and On Great Fields: The Life and Unlikely Heroism of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, by Ronald C. White, are waiting on bookstore shelves.

Those unschooled in Civil War lore and history need only know that Longstreet was Lee’s second in command, referred to by Lee as his “old war horse.” A graduate of West Point, he fought in the Mexican War, was friends with Grant, and played a pivotal role in the Southern rebellion. He’s most remembered for his participation — or lack thereof — in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, where he disagreed with Lee’s determination to attack the Union position on Cemetery Ridge. Varon asks the question that has persisted over the years: Did his (Longstreet’s) misgivings about Lee’s plan translate into battlefield insubordination? Did he deliberately delay Lee’s attack, thus dooming it to failure? Gen. Pickett asked Longstreet if he should proceed with the advance, and Longstreet merely nodded. Scholars and Civil War buffs have spent the last 160 years attempting to discern Longstreet’s motives.

After the surrender at Appomattox, Longstreet moved to New Orleans, a Union-held city that supported a large anti-secession population and a well-educated Black community, a place where Reconstruction might have succeeded. Longstreet threw himself into Republican Party politics and promoted Black suffrage. He helped establish a biracial police force, sat on the New Orleans school board, which was racially integrated, and was instrumental in fostering civil rights laws. But violence soon enough became endemic in the South and in Reconstruction Louisiana. Longstreet attempted to suppress it, but terrorist groups such as the White League and the Knights of the White Camellia held sway. In 1874, the White League attempted to overthrow the state’s Reconstruction government. Longstreet sided with the militia and police, but only the intervention of federal troops restored order. For the remainder of his life, Longstreet continued to speak up for Black voting rights, which earned him condemnation from his former brothers-in-arms.

No statue of Longstreet existed in the South or on the Gettysburg battlefield until the 1998 unveiling of “a decidedly unheroic” likeness of the general riding “an undersized horse, positioned on the grass rather than atop a pedestal, on the edge of the battlefield park, blocked from view by trees.”

So why aren’t there more monuments to Lee’s “old war horse”? Longstreet’s embrace of Reconstruction rendered him unfit as a symbol of the “Lost Cause,” thus proving, Varon observes, that the small-town Confederate statues were not simply monuments to heroism but “totems to white supremacy.”   

“We like to bestow praise on historical figures who had the courage of their convictions,” she writes. “Longstreet’s story is a reminder that the arc of history is sometimes bent by those who had the courage to change their convictions.”

There’s no dearth of statues honoring Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. A bronze likeness stands in Chamberlain Freedom Park in Brewer, Maine. A second statue was erected in Brunswick, Maine, not far from Bowdoin College, where he served as president following his participation in the Civil War, and a third statue of the general overlooks the Gettysburg Battlefield, facing outward from Little Roundtop.

Chamberlain was lifted from obscurity by Michael Shaara’s 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels and Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary The Civil War, both of which rehash Chamberlain’s and the 20th Maine Infantry’s crucial defense of Little Roundtop during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Ronald C. White’s On Great Fields: The Life and Unlikely Heroism of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is the latest biography to explore Chamberlain’s remarkable and complicated life.

Rather than concentrating on Chamberlain’s Civil War exploits, White delves deeply into the general’s personal life, both pre- and post-war. He examines Chamberlain’s deep Calvinist faith and his love of music and learning — he was fluent in nine languages — that dominated his adolescence and shaped his adulthood. His lengthy and difficult courtship of and marriage to Fanny Adams is explored in sometimes agonizing detail, and his time as president of Bowdoin College and as governor of Maine is fully explicated.

Although he was much admired in Maine, Chamberlain’s post-war years were anything but tranquil. His marriage was troubled. He and Fanny were at one point estranged, and she implied that marital abuse may have been a factor in their separation. Chamberlain never denied the accusation. In January 1880, Chamberlain was called upon to prevent violence in the state Capitol during the gubernatorial election. The Maine State House had been taken over by armed men, and the governor appointed Chamberlain to take command of the Maine Militia. He disarmed the insurrectionists and stayed in the State House until the Maine Supreme Court decided the election’s outcome. White goes on to expand on Chamberlain’s role as an entrepreneur, his ventures into Florida railroads and land development, and various New York businesses.

On February 24, 1914, succumbing at last to infections caused by an old war wound, the 85-year-old Chamberlain died at his home in Portland, 50 years after a minie ball ripped through his body at Petersburg. He had lived most of his life with excruciating pain caused by the wound, refusing opioids that were legal and readily available.

Near the conclusion of Burns’ The Civil War, the death of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is announced: “The war was over,” the narrator says. Given the lessons implicit in these new biographies and the skullduggery of contemporary politics, readers are likely to question that simple declarative sentence.  PS

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards.

The Omnivorous Reader

The Omnivorous Reader

Tales to Tell

The journey of a lifetime

By Anne Blythe

Kelley Shinn spent a long afternoon in a bar with poet Eric Trethewey some years back and told him a story that made him grab her by the shoulders and implore her to write it down.

Shinn had recently returned to the United States from a years-long trip abroad, a nomadic journey she organized to bring attention to the predicament of landmine survivors. As noble an undertaking as that might be, it was not the typical goodwill mission highlighting the plight of amputees whose limbs were blown off in war-torn lands.

A single mother at the time, Shinn — who has prosthetic legs below her knees — was still recovering from her own physical and emotional wounds when she embarked on her global expedition in a tricked-out Land Rover with her whip-smart 3-year-old, Celie. The Wounds That Bind Us, her story chronicling that journey, went through many renditions before becoming the memoir published this year by West Virginia University Press.

Shinn tried a series of short stories first. Next she rewrote it as a novel. “Then I had an agent from New York that was interested in it,” Shinn, now an Ocracoke resident, recounted at a reading at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. “And she said, ‘You say it’s based on autobiography. Give me a percentage.’ So I wrote her back and said at this point, it’s 75 percent true. She goes, ‘Here’s my problem. It’s too unbelievable for fiction. You need to rewrite it as memoir.’”

The narrative that came together over the next decade is a phenomenal adventure story that will pull you to the edge of your seat while marveling at Shinn’s candor, steely backbone, vulnerability and wisdom. She takes readers on this emotional ride with self-deprecating humor, artistic prose and a welcome hopefulness that oozes throughout the pages. There are times you want to sit her down, stop her from doing what she’s about to do and tell her the danger’s not worth it — think climbing onto wreckage of a bombed-out bridge in Bosnia high above the Neretva River to get the perfect photo. After all, there’s Celie to think about, the child she brought into the world after 52 hours of labor. Her daughter is her sidekick, a worldly little girl who loves her “to the moon and back.” Who will respond “I love you the whole universe” if Shinn succumbs to unnecessary risks?

Overwhelmingly, readers are more likely to be cheering for Shinn, engrossed in a story that keeps them hungering for the next escapade while also hoping that any one of the many interesting people she encounters along the way can keep her in check.

Shinn was a promising cross-country runner at 16 years old, when her body and life were forever changed by a rare form of bacterial meningitis initially misdiagnosed as flu. Although that’s not how she starts the memoir, she flashes back to that time in the hospital while thinking about landmine victims in Bosnia.

“I’ve got more wires running around and through me than an early desktop computer,” Shinn writes. “A month ago my coach was talking to me about scholarships for cross-country. Lord in heaven, how I wish I could jump off this bed right now and run, just run through the Metroparks, down the city sidewalks, run until my heart pounds in my chest, until the sweat breaks out all over my body and evaporates into thin air.”

There is a sense throughout The Wounds That Bind Us that Shinn is running. Running, running and running. She’s racing away from the pains and sorrows of her childhood and abusive relationships while, at the same time, jogging slowly toward healing and enlightenment. Shinn scratches at deep wounds from being put up for adoption by her birth mother and raised by an adoptive mother who beat her “in a quick rage, with a stick, a belt or a hand.” She explores the mindset that pushed her toward doomed romantic relationships like the one with a scheming first husband who glommed onto her after the well-publicized settlement of her malpractice lawsuit.

This is not a woe-is-me tell-all, though.

Shinn describes unforgettable scenes such as the overnight stay in a brothel with Celie; the off-road thrill rides on steep, rocky terrains; and the beautiful landscapes of Greece. Her stories are filled with memorable characters, from cab drivers to their neighbors in the United Kingdom; from her Greek classics professor turned travel companion to the soldiers, farmers and others with bodies forever altered by landmines; from the many people who care for Celie; all the way to Athena, the Land Rover (a trusted character itself) that does the transporting from England to Serbia, Bosnia and Greece.

It is well worth it to take the journey with Shinn, “that’s two Ns and no shins,” she jokes. She’s funny, daredevilish but relatable. That poet at the bar, a man she would have a relationship and son with, was right. Shinn’s story needed to be written.   PS

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades covering city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

The Omnivorous Reader

The Omnivorous Reader

Portrait of a Genius

When art and politics collide

By Stephen E. Smith

At a moment in our cultural/political history when we disagree about almost everything, you’d expect an ambitious pundit to pen a bestseller titled America vs. America: A Definitive Analysis of Our Cantankerousness. Although books aplenty attempt such revelations, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to articulate the forces at work in the here and now, but literary critic Scott Eyman has given us the next best thing to an explanation: Charlie Chaplin vs. America: When Art, Sex, and Politics Collided, an exposé/biography of a man who defined, at least in part, the last century, and who suffered the slings and arrows of an America gone wacky.

Eyman’s latest offering — he’s authored six previous books on the film industry and various movie stars — may strike readers as a story told a trifle too late. After all, Charlie Chaplin is ancient history, a wobbly, bowler-topped, black and white stick figure balanced on a rubbery cane who inexplicably entertained our grandparents with the silent knowledge that authentic comedy has its source in the concealment of anguish. The day-to-day details of Chaplin’s life notwithstanding, there’s insight aplenty in this cautionary tale of an artist whose universal popularity among Americans diminished to the point that he was run out of the country and forced to take up residence in Switzerland for the later years of his life.

Chaplin was born in England and suffered a childhood of poverty and hardship. His alcoholic father abandoned the family, and he and his brother were sent to a workhouse. His mother was committed to a mental institution when he was 14, and Chaplin was forced to find work touring theaters and music halls as a stage actor and comedian. At 19, he toured with a company that traveled the United States, where he eventually signed with Keystone Studios. By the age of 20, he was the best-known man in the world.

Chaplin co-founded United Artists and went on to write and produce The Kid, A Woman of Paris, The Gold Rush and The Circus. After the introduction of talkies, he released two silent films, City Lights and Modern Times, both film classics, followed by his first sound film, The Great Dictator, which satirized Adolf Hitler. After abandoning his Tramp persona, his later films included Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight and A King in New York. His credits and awards would fill this page, but less-than-knowledgeable readers need only grasp this basic fact: Chaplin was a creative genius who had a profound influence on popular culture and the art of filmmaking.

The focus of Eyman’s biography is Chaplin’s fall from grace. Early in his career, Chaplin was accused in a paternity suit in which he was found guilty, although blood tests proved conclusively that he was not the father (at the time, the state of California didn’t recognize blood tests as evidence); but the scandal was enough to attract the attention of gossip columnists, Hedda Hopper foremost among them, who were always collecting dirt on celebrity targets that would sell newspapers.

More destructive to Chaplin’s reputation was the public curiosity regarding his politics. Although he lived much of his life in the United States — indeed, he made most of his fortune here — he never applied for citizenship, which generated a cloud of suspicion that never quite dissipated. Chaplin claimed to be an anarchist, “not in the bomb-throwing sense,” Eyman writes, “but in his dislike of rules and a preference for as much liberty as the law allowed, and maybe just a bit more.” In truth, he was little interested in politicians and politics, outside the restraints placed on the arts by contemporaries who were politically minded.

Having suffered through a childhood of poverty, he harbored a great concern for the underprivileged, which is evident in all his films. But when he released Modern Times, which thematically explored the unending struggle against authoritarianism, and The Great Dictator, which mocked Adolf Hitler, both films, humorous but essentially didactic in intent, further thrust Chaplin into the political arena. Prior to our involvement in World War II, he publicly advocated an alliance with the Soviet Union, and members of the press and the public were scandalized by his marriage when he was 54, to 18-year-old Oona O’Neill, the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill.

Because of his support of Russia, Chaplin was accused of being a communist sympathizer, and the FBI opened an investigation, all of which fed into the Red Scare and McCarthyism of the early 1950s. Chaplin fell into such disfavor with the public that he was denied re-entry to the U.S. after leaving for the London premiere of his film Limelight.

Eyman’s book is a “social, political and cultural history of the crucial period in the life of a seminal twentieth-century figure — the original independent filmmaker who gradually fell into moral combat with his adopted country precisely because of the beliefs that form the core of his personality and films.”

Certainly, the activities of the press — particularly the gossip columnists who fed on Chaplin’s foibles; and the FBI, which launched a long, out-of-control investigation of Chaplin’s life — will give the thoughtful reader pause. FBI files on Chaplin ran to over 1,900 pages, mostly hearsay procured from dubious sources, material that was fed to friendly reporters who used the misinformation to besmirch Chaplin’s character and promote themselves.

Are there definitive elements in Chaplin’s life that precisely parallel the political/cultural moment in which we find ourselves? Probably not. As usual, Mark Twain is credited with having said it best: “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes,” and readers, regardless of their politics, are likely to find themselves singing along with whatever sad tune history is humming at the moment.   PS

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He is the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards.

The Omnivorous Reader

The Omnivorous Reader

Read and Dead

A librarian’s cozy mystery series

By Anne Blythe

Librarians are good at deciphering mysteries. Just ask any card-carrying library fan. They can be sherpas, of a sort, guiding readers from behind the confines of their reference desks to a world of information often only a bookshelf or computer click away.

Some are good at creating them, too, as Victoria Gilbert, a former librarian-turned-mystery writer, shows in A Cryptic Clue, the first book in her new Hunter and Clewe cozy mystery series.

Raised in the “shadows of the Blue Ridge mountains,” Gilbert has been a reference librarian, a research librarian and a library director so, in the vein of “write what you know,” it’s easy to see why the protagonist in her new series is Jane Hunter, a 60-year-old university librarian forced into early retirement and a new chapter in life.

Gilbert’s Jane has tinges of Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple in her, although she is a divorcee, not a spinster, who still wants to work for a living to pad her paltry pension. That desire to find a new vocation leads Gilbert’s chief sleuth to her new boss, Cameron Clewe — Cam, to those who know the 33-year-old unconventional multi-millionaire well — who was looking for an archivist and hired Jane sight unseen. Cam not only inherited tremendous wealth at a young age, but also an estate so large that it houses a private library, guest quarters and grand rooms where the well-to-do and those aspiring to affluence gather for glamorous galas, glitzy fundraisers and seasonal soirees.

Although Jane describes her new boss as “leading man material,” he’s a nervous type whose lack of a filter makes him a blunt, often humorless, speaker.

“I didn’t realize you were so old,” Cam says upon meeting Jane in his library. “And rather heavier than I expected, given that photo on the university website.”

Jane, on the other hand, is a woman used to working with college students and the mother of a grown daughter, an actress with a middle name that might as well be “drama.” She checks herself instead of blurting out the first thing that pops into her mind.

“That photo is a bit dated,” Jane responds, keeping her eyes on the prize she did not want to lose. Her Social Security payments wouldn’t kick in for at least two more years. She needs the work. Furthermore, she’s interested in sifting through and cataloging “the books and papers connected to classic mystery and detective authors” that have been amassed in Aircroft, Cam’s mansion. “As for my current appearance — years working in academia has taken its toll, it seems. But I am certain you hired me for my expertise, not my looks.”

Such is the beginning of the relationship that brings two Sherlocks from very different circumstances together to solve a mystery that holds a reader’s interest through the very last page.

The whodunit kicks off on a Monday at Aircroft after a charity fete over the weekend. Jane walks into the library on her first day of work, travel mug filled with coffee in hand, to find the body of Ashley Allen crumpled on the floor, “unquestionably, irrevocably dead.”

After “fighting the urge to retch” and scanning the crime scene with a surprisingly calm detachment, Jane staggers into the hallway, slumps against the wall and slides to the floor. “There’s a dead body in the library,” Jane thought. “That room meant to be my workplace is now a murder scene.”

It’s not just any body, either. Ashley was Cam’s ex-girlfriend, someone Jane had seen her new boss arguing with days earlier while touring the garden grounds. More than 100 people had been at Aircroft for the party the night before. Ashley had been there too, and was still clad in her silver sequined dress.

“You do realize who will be their number one suspect, of course,” Cam says after seeing the crime scene.

Quickly Cam decides to be proactive and use his resources to investigate Ashley’s death on his own. He turns to Jane for help. “I refuse to lounge around while the authorities build a case against me,” Cam declares. But, as his assistant Lauren points out, Cam is agoraphobic, rarely venturing out past the gates surrounding his home. That’s where Jane comes in.

“I’ll need help collecting information from the wider community. Which is what I’d like you two to do,” Cam tells Jane and Lauren. “Bring me back any clues you uncover, and I can piece it together, and perhaps solve this case before the authorities start casting about for a scapegoat. Namely me.”

The hunt for clues is added to Jane’s assigned duties. As Cam sets out to collect information from the kitchen staff and guests who had been staying in his house, Jane pursues the story outside Aircroft, casting about town for hints why the beautiful and wealthy Ashley has been killed, presumably by a fatal head wound delivered with a blunt object.

There is no shortage of suspects, either. Ashley left a trail of aggrieved casualties from former romances, business ventures and injurious family dynamics. As Jane and Cam glean the many storylines from Gilbert’s cast of characters, suspects are added to and subtracted from the list. Jane’s landlord, Vince, a retired reporter from the local newspaper, and his girlfriend, Donna, a former secretary at the local high school, provide background depth to clues that Jane turns up from her sleuthing.

In addition to the love interests and resentful entrepreneurs wooed and abandoned by the victim, readers meet the quirky Aircroft house guests, the detached Allen family — all of whom were to be left out of the deep-pocketed grandmother’s will — their housekeeper and others.

Gilbert keeps her readers guessing while entertaining them with snippets about mystery writers and their well-known characters, such as Archie, the droll narrator and sidekick to Nero Wolfe, the armchair detective brought to life by Rex Stout.

As Jane and Cam cross suspect after suspect off their lists while unraveling the mystery of Ashley’s killer, they uncover new secrets and riddles that are tidily wrapped up at the end of the novel. As the two share a pizza with the riddle solved, it’s clear more sleuthing is ahead.

“We could investigate those cold cases you mentioned, and maybe take on a few cases for other people,” Cam tells Jane.

“Maybe focus on cases where justice didn’t seem likely to be served?” Jane adds.

“Exactly,” Cam responds.

Exactly, indeed. Gilbert’s fans will be looking forward to whatever comes their way.  PS

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades covering city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

Portrait of a Rock Icon

The good, the bad and the ugly

By Stephen E. Smith

When organizing the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, the promoter phoned Chuck Berry to invite him to perform, explaining that the acts were donating their fees to charity. Berry replied, “Chuck Berry has only one charity and that’s Chuck Berry.” End of discussion.

That was Chuck Berry at his most generous, and readers of RJ Smith’s Chuck Berry: An American Life will likely be taken aback by the unsavory details of the life of the man who gave us “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Back in the U.S.A.,” “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” “School Days,” “You Never Can Tell” and “Johnny B. Goode,” rock ’n’ roll classics that pop culture will not willingly let die.

Smith’s biography has been widely lauded in print, online and over the airways, and his study of Berry’s life is as close to a complete examination available to the public. Court records offer even more objectionable details. This much is certain: The more you read about Chuck Berry’s lifestyle, the less likely you are to ever listen to “Maybellene” with a sense of nostalgia.

Berry grew up in a solid middle-class St. Louis family. He wasn’t a blues guy who spent his youth picking cotton and banging on a catalog guitar. He did, however, suffer discrimination early in his life, and Smith devotes the opening chapters of the biography detailing the effects of Jim Crow on Berry’s formative years.

Berry’s trouble began when he was convicted of armed robbery as a teenager and spent almost three years in juvenile detention. When he was released, he drifted into music, became an early master of the new electric guitar, and created an original sound by combining country music with boogie-woogie.

We can argue about who invented the concept of “rock star,” but certainly Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis could lay claim to the term. Berry’s shtick was to sing with impeccable diction while blasting glib rapid-fire lyrics that teenagers could instantly comprehend and dance to. This straightforward blueprint for early rock ’n’ roll attracted Black audiences in the early ’50s. By the mid-’50s Berry’s fanbase was integrated. In the 1960s, he was playing to almost entirely white crowds, at which point his performance was simply called “rock.”

The bulk of Smith’s biography is taken up with the upsetting stories that accompany Berry’s hundreds of performances. His business plan was straightforward. Berry would sign a contract with a promoter who was responsible for supplying the backup band and amplification equipment. He’d arrive in a Cadillac, also supplied by the promoter, minutes before he was to take the stage. There’d be no rehearsal, no interaction with the band, and he’d demand payment in cash before performing. Berry would count the moola, play for the designated amount of time, duckwalk for the audience’s edification, and bang out the hits for which he was best known. Then he’d exit the stage. If there was an encore, he’d demand additional cash. When the concert was over, he’d pack up his guitar and make a clean getaway.

Generally, the audience loved it, dancing, cheering and having a fine time. Berry made money, the promoter usually made money, and the audience left satisfied. The late Rick Nelson summed it up best in his hit “Garden Party”: “Someone opened the closet door and out stepped Johnny B. Good,/playing guitar like ringing a bell, and looking like he should.” Ray Kroc would have been proud — Berry cooked up musical cheeseburgers, each one a tasty clone of its predecessor. Consistency was the key.

All of which was fine and dandy with American audiences. But there was one overawing problem: Chuck Berry. He was irascible, mercurial, essentially unknowable, and had an affinity for trouble. After serving his time in juvie and achieving fame as a rock ’n’ roller, he began traveling the county with a 14-year-old Native American girl he claimed was his assistant. The cops weren’t buying it and nailed Berry for violating the Mann Act — transporting an underage female across state lines for immoral purposes. He spent two more years in prison. Then the IRS began tracking the cash Berry received for his performances and nailed him for income tax evasion, and late in his career he was busted for installing covert cameras in the restrooms of a restaurant he owned, an act of voyeurism that gave rise to an investigation that uncovered a trove of pornographic material in which Chuck Berry was the star. 

As Berry’s antisocial behavior was becoming common knowledge, he was being roundly honored by the American public. On Whittier Street in St. Louis, the National Register of Historic Places listed his home as a monument, and after his release from prison for violating the Mann Act, NASA blasted gold-plated recordings of Berry’s “Johnny B. Good” into interstellar space aboard Voyagers 1 and 2. (Voyager 1 is now 14.1 billion miles from Earth, a far distance from the prison cells Berry occupied in the ’60s and ’70s.) His IRS indictment was greeted with a universal shrug, and his voyeurism conviction was likewise ignored by the press. Chuck Berry went right on performing and raking in the big bucks, playing out the string until the bitter end.

Smith has included all the facts: the good, of which there’s little enough; the bad; and the ugly, of which there’s plenty. Two questions remain. First, who was Chuck Berry? Did anyone truly know the man? Berry explained his sense of self in an interview: “This is a materialistic, physical world. And you can’t really KNOW anybody else, man, because you can’t even really know yourself. And if you can’t know yourself then sure as hell no one else can. Nobody’s been with you as long as you and you still don’t know yourself real well.”

The second question is more complex, encompassing the American penchant for revering individuals, whether rich, talented or charismatic, who are given to violating legal and social norms. Are we willing to accept outrageous behavior from unrepentant religious leaders, corrupt politicians and wayward rock ’n’ roll stars because they’ve somehow made themselves infamous? Apparently so. After all, nothing is quite as American as hypocrisy. PS

Stephen E. Smith’s latest book, Beguiled by the Frailties of Those Who Precede Us, is available from Kelsay Books, Amazon and Local bookstores.

The Omnivorous Reader

The Omnivorous Reader

Discovering a Dutch Master

A life story ringed with mystery

By Stephen E. Smith

Convincing a friend that a work of art you love is worthy of his or her attention can be disheartening.

You: “See the inner darkness and the outer brightness of the painting, how the sense of circumambient air drifts evenly through the scene?”

Friend: “How much is that thing worth anyway?”

Our unabashed enthusiasm is too often dashed by indifference. Or, worse yet, by that Antiques Roadshow inclination to ignore anything other than a painting’s monetary value.

Given our confusion as to exactly what art is and what it means, it’s little wonder we tend to reject uninvited suggestions as to what we should like or dislike. That’s the challenge facing art critic Laura Cumming in Thunderclap: A Memoir of Art and Life & Sudden Death. Since childhood, she has been enamored of A View of Delft, With a Musical Instrument Seller’s Stall, by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius (1622-1654). Now she wants us to love it, too.

Cumming has been the art critic for The Observer and was a senior editor of the New Statesman magazine, both British publications. Her book The Vanishing Velazques was a New York Times bestseller. In her latest offering, she writes with keen insight and obvious affection for the Dutch masters — Rembrandt, Vermeer, Avercamp, Ruisdael, De Hooch, etc. — but the focus of her memoir is on the less celebrated Fabritius, known for having painted The Goldfinch, The Sentry, as well as A View of Delft. Fabritius is considered a minor Dutch master, primarily because so little of his work survives, but Cumming maintains that he’s no less accomplished than Vermeer and Rembrandt, and that he’s deserving of greater recognition. Unfortunately, precious little is known about Fabritius’ life, and it’s assumed that most of his paintings have not survived. We do, however, know about his death.

The “Thunderclap” in Cumming’s title alludes to an explosion near a convent in the city of Delft, where 80,000 pounds of stored gunpowder exploded on Monday, October 12, 1654. The detonation injured a thousand, destroyed hundreds of wooden homes and left a hundred people dead, including Fabritius, his apprentice and the subject of the portrait he was painting at the time. Fortunately, his best-known painting, The Goldfinch, was rescued from the rubble.

Although Fabritius was a student of Rembrandt, he’s seldom mentioned by his contemporaries, and documentation concerning his personal life is sparse. His wife and child died early, and, like most Dutch painters, Fabritius was deeply in debt. His isolation is reflected in The Goldfinch, his lesser-known The Sentry and two brooding self-portraits, which are little enough upon which to base a lengthy aesthetic exposition. “I go round and round this tiny tale,” Cumming writes, “this life circling out from the village of Middenbeemster, ringed with mystery. It is a man’s whole life. Yet I can get no more of him, except perhaps through his art. He is like a suicide who takes his secrets away with him.”

The “memoir” element of Thunderclap focuses on Cumming’s father, James Cumming (1922-1991), a painter of “semi-figurative art.” Cumming admired her father’s artistic dedication, but his inclusion in the narrative seems mildly intrusive when explicating the likes of the Dutch masters. Certainly, his influence is felt in the love Cumming has for art, but the connection to her narrative is tenuous at best.

But Cumming recalls with pleasure the art she discovered growing up in Scotland, and the magnificence of the paintings she observed on a childhood visit to the Netherlands. The bulk of her beautifully written text is devoted to explicating the art produced by those Dutch masters, and the book offers colorful images of the paintings she explicates.

Americans, for all our lack of aesthetic depth, are nonetheless capable of appreciating how art relates to our everyday lives. Grant Wood’s American Gothic, for example, is an immensely popular masterpiece that illustrates through the subtle use of symbolism most of our aspirations and contradictions — the individual vs. collective wisdom, religion, the American Dream, the virtues of hard work, the relationship between the sexes, upward social mobility, etc. — and the subtle social criticism in Childe Hassam’s Washington Arch in Spring is apparent to any careful observer. Ethnocentric tendencies aside, it’s possible to discern much about the cultural history of a foreign country by studying its art. This is where Cumming’s insights are essential.

Her description of De Hooch’s The Courtyard of a House in Delft is representative of her work: “. . . the brickwork lying in its separate courses, the paint exactly imitating mortar; the dusty blue of the weeds and ivy, the clear light of the street; then the wonderful set of rhyming shapes — the scarlet shutter on one side, its wooden counterpart on the other; the oval window in the stonework and its glass twin in the hallway, the recession of arch inside arch inside arch that takes the eye right through the corridor and out in the street of Delft.”

Reading Cumming’s meticulous descriptions opens the reader’s perception of the accompanying paintings. Her precise prose takes readers on an excursion through the Rijksmuseum and the Golden Age of Dutch Art. It’s a tour worth every ounce of effort.   

No book, especially a book on art, is for everyone. But Thunderclap comes close. Keep an open mind. And if you’re not interested in art, you can take solace in the fact that the masterpieces Cumming presents are priceless, deserving of a jubilant Antiques Roadshow “Wow!” with the turn of every page.

Thunderclap: A Memoir of Art and Life & Sudden Death will be in bookstores in mid-July. If you find it enthralling, you might also enjoy Donna Tartt’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch.   PS

Stephen E. Smith’s latest book, Beguiled by the Frailties of Those Who Precede Us, is available from Kelsay Books, Amazon and The Country Bookshop.

Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

Flying Toward Catastrophe

The real canaries in the coal mine

By Anne Blythe

Many of us turned a more enthusiastic ear toward the chorus of birds in our midst during the early days of the pandemic. With the routine rumble of traffic muted to a minimum, their chirps, trills and full-throated songs offered a sense of solace in an unfamiliar world.

In their new book, A Wing and a Prayer: The Race to Save Our Vanishing Birds, Anders and Beverly Gyllenhaal tell us we should lean in and pay close attention. Their calls, or lack of them, their habits and changing habitats herald the health of our environment, write the avid birders and veteran journalists.

The husband and wife team, based in Raleigh, got the bad news out of the way at the start. In the last 50 years, a third of the North American bird population vanished.

“That translates to three billion birds of all sizes and shapes, in losses stretching from coast to coast, from the Arctic to Antarctica, through forests and grasslands, ranches and farms,” the couple writes in the introduction, noting that some birds are transcontinental travelers. “As one veteran biologist, John Doresky, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Georgia, told us, ‘We’re in the emergency room now.’”

The Gyllenhaals might start their story in the ER, but their book does not dwell heavily on a doomsday scenario. Instead, they offer an optimistic outlook as they chronicle the research, new technology and conservation laboratories they explore during two years of cross-country and intercontinental travels.

The grasshopper sparrow and spotted owl serve as their bookends for a wide-ranging story reported with exacting detail about the work of “the ranks of biologists, ranchers, ecologists, birders, hunters, wildlife officers and philanthropists trying to protect the continent’s birds from a growing list of lethal threats and pressures.”

Anders and Beverly got involved with birding more than a decade ago while living in Washington, D.C. They were transitioning from long careers in journalism to “a lifestyle geared toward three Bs: birds, books and banjos, which Anders had played since high school.” Disclosure: One leg of their journalism path brought Anders to the News & Observer in Raleigh, where I worked for him and admired his dedication to solid reporting and storytelling. That commitment is evident throughout A Wing and a Prayer.

They take us along with them on a journey in their Airstream from North Carolina to Florida, through the heartlands to Kansas, and then further west to California, where they store their home office on wheels while they continue their trek through Hawaii.

They introduce us to colorful conservationists in muddy bogs, grassy fields and craggy bluffs while also giving readers a peek inside the offices of pivotal conservation organizations and ornithology labs.

Many of these scientists and conservationists could be the backbone for books of their own about trying to stop birds from being added to the list of extinct species. They introduce us to Ben Novak, a scientist in his mid-30s who grew up in North Dakota and now lives in Brevard, North Carolina. After falling in love with the passenger pigeon as a teen, he has developed intricate plans to build a lab in western North Carolina, hoping to use genomics to bring the bird back from extinction.

Not all of the conservation projects are as futuristic as Novak’s. In Hawaii they are about to release clouds of mosquitoes bred in laboratories to combat avian malaria. The goal is for the lab-created male mosquitos carrying an incompatible bacteria to mate with females that, in turn, will lay eggs that won’t hatch. In the process the conservationists hope to save some of the island state’s most threatened native birds. Hawaii, the Gyllenhaals point out, is the extinction capital of the world with 100 of the 140 native bird species having already disappeared. And, in the Southeast, the U.S. military has been heavily involved in efforts to save the red-cockaded woodpecker through controlled burns and managed forests on bases like Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune.

While the Gyllenhaals stress that it is often the bigger birds — the bald eagle, the illusive ivory- billed woodpecker or the California condor — that get much of the attention, the smaller birds that hide easily in their habitats need more vocal advocates to save their species.

Their two-year journey, covering more than 25,000 miles, gives glimpses of many different birds including the Cerulean warbler, a tiny songbird that breeds in Appalachia and the eastern U.S. hardwood forests before making a long journey to winter in South America. The Gyllenhaals traveled to Ecuador to see firsthand the conservation efforts to protect the brilliantly colored birds that winter in the mountain forests there.

“We returned home inspired by the work under way to save birds,” the Gyllenhaals write. “We met folks who ruin their knees scrambling along dangerous cliffs, agonize over algorithms, confront adversaries at gunpoint and sometimes get their eyebrows singed off. They welcomed us into their lives for days at a time and shared their hopes, frustrations, and determinations.

Taken together, their experiences help make the case for birds — not only as nature’s workhorses and cultural icons, but as living bellwethers of the environment at a pivotal time.”

If you care about the birds in your midst — those in plain sight as well as those not so easy to see — A Wing and a Prayer is a must read.

“The Three Billion Bird Study stripped all mystery from the troubled state of the hemisphere’s birdscape,” the Gyllenhaals conclude. “There’s still time to respond, but that time is now. It’s clear what steps are making a difference and what will help avoid another half-century like the last one. Halting the collapse of our birds will not be easy. But as the scores of researchers, birders, wildlife experts, hunters and philanthropists are proving every day, a turnaround is within reach if we’ll listen to what the birds are telling us.”   OH

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades. She has covered city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

The Omnivorous Reader

The Omnivorous Reader

Heart of a Poet

Time, place and eternity meet in Indigo Field

By Stephen E. Smith

On this sunny late-March afternoon, Marjorie Hudson occupies rarefied space: She’s standing in the footprints of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson and Thomas Wolfe, reading from her beautifully wrought first novel, Indigo Field, at the Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities. Her bright eyes (they might be blue or green; the afternoon light plays tricks) stare out from a shock of white hair (she’s accurately penned the description “white-blonde hair” for a character in her novel), and she’s smiling the smile of one who’s realized her dream via pure, implacable determination. In the words of Keats, she’s surprised everyone, including herself, with “a fine excess,” writing that strikes the reader almost as a remembrance. Now all she has to do is sell her masterwork. The literary world needs to know about Indigo Field, and readers need to snatch it off bookstore shelves or download it online.

Hudson is a Midwesterner who settled in North Carolina by way of a lengthy sojourn in Washington, D.C., where she worked for a nature magazine that kept her indoors much of the time.  “We all worked such long hours we hardly got to go outside,” she says. “All it took for me to jump ship was a visit to a friend (in North Carolina), a rainbow over a farmhouse, and I was hooked. My days were full of freelance writing assignments, sunbathing in the yard, gardening, and pond swimming. Whippoorwills chanted outside my window, a sound I’d never heard before. When frogs took over the pond one night in a massive mating ritual, it was better than any nature documentary.”

Thus Indigo Field evolved into a decidedly Southern novel featuring Southern characters immersed in a regional history that emphasizes a strong sense of place. Even so, there’s no forced, ersatz Southernisms in her dialogue, no Hollywood “y’alls,” and, thank God, there’s not a subhuman Faulknerian Snopes in sight. Her characters speak authentically, and they never propagate a phony gesture. Somehow she’s acquired the ability to absorb the Southern landscape she’s adopted as home.

She came by this invaluable knowledge by happening into the perfect job. “One of the many freelance jobs I took to pay the rent was copy-editing novels at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill,” she says. “I had never read much Southern lit before, and reading the novels of Clyde Edgerton and Jill McCorkle, and the stories of Lee Abbott and Larry Brown was like going to grad school. How a novel all fit together was fascinating. How a short story was constructed was beautiful. And the language! I was learning the rhythms of speech and turns of phrase from my neighbors, my new husband, and these stories. I turned to my computer and started a story of my own.”

Hudson’s prose style is clear and concise, and she preserves a delicate balance of empathy for characters who come alive with startling authenticity. Her leapfrogging plot turns sustain the story’s energy and propel the reader ever forward. The Regal House Publishing promotional material provides an accurate precis. “In this novel of moral reckoning, the unjust outcome of a murder trial, and the chance accident that follows, result in a feud that raises the spirits of the dead, forcing enemies to become allies in order to survive.”

Good enough. But the novel’s beauty is more than fancy footwork, deft plotting and the able handling of points of view. Hudson writes with the heart of a poet. Her prose has been worked on (in the best sense) to get rid of that worked-on feeling. Take this transitional passage from Chapter 49: “This great wind rode the eye of a rogue hurricane and spun out lightning and whirlwinds like warriors of a great army. These warriors flattened all they touched, and chose what they touched with care. They touched the new homes of wealthy people and left the old derelict home of Poolesville, the farmhouses of widows, the trailer parks of the destitute, damaged but still standing. The wind brought lightning strikes so pervasive that many small fires lit rooftops, tall trees and last year’s broomsedge in Indigo Field. . . . This wind skipped from high spot to high spot, so that places that had been raised up were laid low, and places that were low and humble remained intact.”

The writing of Indigo Field took up almost 30 years of Hudson’s life — with time out to write and publish an acclaimed short story collection, Accidental Birds of the Carolinas, and a history/travelogue, Searching for Virginia Dare. “I had 450 pages (of the novel) by 1998, but I didn’t know how to end it and I knew it needed revision.” She set Indigo Field aside, finished a different novel, sent it out, got discouraged, went to graduate school, and all the while the novel kept getting longer and longer. Hudson recalls: “I kept adding layers of things I was fascinated with: parrot colonies, Nike missile sites, archeology. As it got longer and longer, unbeknown to me, New York’s acceptable novel length had gotten shorter and shorter. It was roundly rejected.”  So Hudson turned to a small press, Regal House Publishing in Raleigh. Regal reminded her of Algonquin in the old days: “Small, feisty, locally owned. I even knew one of the editors,” she says. “I submitted my 50 pages. They asked for the rest. I got the call a couple of months later. I was still revising. Cutting mostly. I had a whole new version by the time Jaynie called and said ‘Yes.’”

Indigo Field was chosen to be part of Regal’s “Sour Mash Series,” a selection of books centered on the American South’s sense of place and history. Hudson was in the place described by Flannery O’Connor: “The Southern writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet.” After living in North Carolina for almost 40 years, Hudson is a Southern writer, and she’s pretty proud of that.

She’s come a distance, a far piece, to stand before an audience at the Weymouth Center — and all the other audiences she’ll be entertaining in the months to come. She has a novel to sell. It’s demanding work, but Marjorie Hudson is surely up to the task.  PS

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards.

Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

Courage and Candor

Daniel Wallace’s thought-provoking memoir

By Stephen E. Smith

If you read the promo material for Daniel Wallace’s new memoir, This Isn’t Going to End Well: The True Story of a Man I Thought I Knew, you’ll assume the message is straightforward: Hero worship is an exercise in disillusion. But the “hero” in Wallace’s memoir isn’t a hero in the accepted sense (the sociological definition for “significant other” is a more accurate term); and the message, although essential and timely, is predictably ambiguous.

Wallace is the author of the bestselling novel, Big Fish, and six other much-praised works of fiction, and the qualities evident in his earlier works are perfectly transferable to his first foray into nonfiction. He crafts a compelling narrative that pulls the reader headlong into a story whose energy never wanes. He’s thoughtful and thought-provoking. He makes sense of the past in order to free the reader to face the future, and he writes with courage and candor.

Wallace introduces his hero, his future brother-in-law, William Nealy, in a scene where he happens upon Nealy attempting a perilous leap from the rooftop of the family home into a swimming pool 25 feet below. Nealy takes flight, plunges into the water, climbs out and repeats the jump over and over. “It was pretty magnificent,” Wallace writes. “It wasn’t some unformed idea I had about masculinity or manliness in him that I was drawn to; I wasn’t into that, then or now. It was just the wildness, the derring-do, his willingness to take flight — literally — into the unknown, an openness to experience and chance that so far in my short life had not been previously modeled to me by anyone.” Wallace admits that he didn’t need to emulate Nealy’s behavior but that he learned “. . . how to become the me I wanted,” and that he would think of that day — he was 12 at the time — as the moment he was born again.

The first third of Wallace’s memoir is a biography of Nealy’s short life: his need for constant adrenalin highs, his success as a cartoonist and writer, his marriage to Wallace’s sister, their loving but troubled relationship, and how Nealy’s example encouraged Wallace to become something other than a cliché — not a writer, but someone “demonstrably unique, amusing,” someone living on the fringes.

Following Nealy’s example Wallace threw himself into several unsatisfying pursuits, eventually settling on the writing of fiction — the telling of quirky tales in which nothing is as it seems — that led to the success of Big Fish.

The Nealys settled near Chapel Hill, where they purchased a large tract of wooded land and William built a house, wrote books and produced cartoons and maps about the challenges of outdoor life. In the context of contemporary existence — the use of drugs and alcohol notwithstanding —  it all seemed idyllic, skewed perfection in a humdrum world that was constantly encroaching. But that encroachment became all-consuming when a close mutual friend, Edgar Hitchcock, a drug dealer whom Wallace characterizes as “the kindest man I have ever met,  so smart, funny and loving,” a dealer who confesses that “selling drugs is the final frontier,” is murdered.

The second part of the memoir centers on the mystery surrounding Hitchcock’s death. Nealy became obsessed with finding the man who murdered his friend, and the road led almost immediately to a likely suspect. Relying on simple intuition, Nealy was able to identify the culprit when he first shook his hand. “It was a notion that would be lodged into the marrow of his very being and would not be dislodged, not ever, not for as long as he lived.”

For purposes of the memoir, the suspect’s name is Stanley, a personable enough acquaintance whom Nealy “befriended” in an attempt to discover the truth surrounding Hitchcock’s murder. When Hitchcock’s body was discovered five months after his disappearance, Stanley began to subtly reveal his culpability.

It’s a long and tangled tale that leads to Stanley’s indictment and his eventual release because of convoluted legal circumstances that hindered prosecution. Nealy was powerless to avenge his friend’s murder, and his continuing obsession with the unpunished culprit damaged his marriage to Wallace’s sister. For one of the few times in his adult life, Nealy found himself powerless to influence events. His need to control the uncontrollable becomes apparent in a brief journal entry: “My whole life has been a struggle against the world to preserve my ‘being’ and it’s put me in dire conflict with the people I love . . . I MUST NOT LET THEM SEE WHO I REALLY AM!”

Nealy committed suicide in his early 40s, Wallace’s sister died in 2011, and Wallace inherited their ashes and Nealy’s journals, leaving him to piece together the events that led to his friend’s tragic end. The journal entries aren’t particularly revealing, but one laconic passage exposes the source of Nealy’s recklessness. Nealy’s hero, a Scoutmaster, sexually assaulted him while at summer camp. Nothing more is revealed about the encounter — and what more needs to be said? A physical dissociation from oneself is the inevitable outcome of such a traumatic event and might explain Nealy’s reckless behavior.

Wallace is left to manage his grief and grapple with the psychological pain suffered when the person upon whom he modeled his life proved himself fallible. He eventually comes to what he believes is a satisfactory understanding of William Nealy’s life and death, but that solution isn’t simple or straightforward. There are no easy answers — and the conundrum remains: What becomes of us when our significant other stumbles? “Can we ever know why we are who we are,” he writes, “the recipe that makes us the unique, bewildering, beautiful and sometimes insane creatures we end up becoming?”

Wallace doesn’t shy from the final truth: There are many ways to die — murder, suicide, illness — and he’s philosophical about the state in which we find ourselves: “. . .  there appear to be no safe places left in the world, on our streets or in our hearts.” How true are those simple words?

This Isn’t Going to End Well is not an easy or uplifting read, but it is a memoir borne of intense experience and introspection, which is the only available panacea for what troubles us. Suicide is a perilous subject for the writer and the reader, but Wallace acknowledges that contemplating the taking of one’s life is the most damaging secret a person can have. The “Author’s Note” lists The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number.  PS

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards.