|Review: Safe Suicide by DeWitt Henry|
(First Published Contrary Magazine Winter 2009)
DeWitt Henry and the Anxiety of Self-Discovery
As it must, a collection of nonfiction pieces assembled into a book lacks the core theme of a single narrative, a focused memoir, or a book-length essay. DeWitt Henry’s Safe Suicide is no exception. What is exceptional—and perhaps less noticed in the variety of forms Henry fancies—is his self-disclosure, the knottiest labor the personal writer faces. How do I disclose to myself things I did not know before I began writing? After all, the lure of personal narrative is for the reader to discover the author’s vagaries of being as he or she does in the writing.
We get Henry’s truest self in his layered stories of family intimacy. In more than half of the twenty pieces (fourteen were previously published), we find Henry, who is in his 50s and 60s for most remembrances, writing about the quotidian lives of his affirmatory wife, Connie ("sexy and beautiful, in an openhearted, wholesome way"); their withdrawn son, David; and their self-reliant daughter, Ruth. The father’s anxiety far outweighs the husband’s.
Henry’s pen stalks the ambivalence of the long-settled man: "Neither my mother, nor my sister, nor possibly, my wife, felt that their fathers prayed for them. Nor have most of the important women friends in my life. What is a father’s prayer? And why is it different for a daughter than for a son? Or is it?"
Thus called, Henry, in the affecting "My Dog Story," contrasts the death of Connie’s mother and a Beagle who shits and barks and whines and whose care devolves to Henry after family members, who said they would help, have all but quit. Henry limps the limp of the dog’s failed or nonexistent obedience. There is no winning with some animals, a battle the loss of loved ones worsens. Only saints and fools endure such trials.
Is that Henry’s problem, his saintliness, his foolish heart? What is it about his mollifying ability to get stuck with what others so artlessly avoid? His capacity for guilt? His Beagle-bred sentimentality? Three or four times, he tries to give the dog away but David won’t allow it. Henry, unwisely, spares David the grief, and this deference to others, often contrary to his interest, becomes an essential disclosure.
In the end, Henry tells his son, who begs for another dog after the bad one is gone, that it’s impossible. Why? Family members already avoid time together and insist on privacy. "I don’t see how, Dave. Jeez, we can barely take care of each other."
It seems that the life Henry draws—seizing responsibilities he doesn’t want to seize—is the life he both regrets living and believes he must live. Such recognition is complicated and seems, in Henry’s writing, only accessible in the long personal narrative. Other exhausting-enriching stories deal with Ruth’s independence as a young woman, Henry’s low sperm count that led to the adoption of David from Korea, and portraits of writer friends Bill Knotts and Richard Yates.
The most ambitious piece—and the best of the lot—is "Arrivals." The essay focuses on his yeoman’s toil as founder and chief helmsman of what has become one of America’s most prestigious literary journals, Ploughshares. The mag’s coming-of-age story often pauses to emphasize Henry’s warnings and insights. Its success subsumes the early days of his marriage. (All the boxing and labeling and shipping, plus lugging issues to bookstores.) Under the gun, he seeks the support of a college and others (never as committed as Father Henry) with whom he must share its voyage. And yet allowing the publication to live on requires letting go, to which he writes, in a perfectly tuned line, "I would find myself marginalized in a world that I had largely created, or felt that I had."
The major grace of this essay is its indirection: it tells of the ostensible birth of Ploughshares, but with the actual purpose of dwelling on Ruth’s birth and David’s arrival, which come to mean more to him than lit-mag-fame. Henry earns his conclusion: "Where once my life had seemed impossible to imagine with children, now life would prove impossible to imagine without them."
Turning in the gyre of parenthood is core material for Henry, a narrativist of self-discovery. Why does he care so much about what he has parented—a magazine, a teaching and writing career, children? Why does the world (read literary patrons and ungrateful sons) not care as he does? Henry is masterful at posing this problem. I wish that in a sequel he will examine, leaning more on the essayistic and less on the narrative, why the problem bloods his veins and remains insoluble.