Ben Miller is known largely as an essayist. He has published in AGNI, the Antioch Review, the Kenyon Review and other journals. His essays have been reprinted in Best American Essays. Miller lives in New York City with his wife, the poet, Anne Pierson Wiese.
“I know this vicious minute’s hour;
It is a sour motion in the blood,
That, like a tree, has roots in you
And buds in you.” DYLAN THOMAS
This is the epigraph that Ben Miller chooses for his River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll Amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa, a nothing-short-of-amazing memoir of the 1970s, “decade of cultural meltdown and baroque morass.” A far cry, you might think, from Dylan Thomas’s boyhood in Wales in the 1920s, but Miller, like Thomas, is an inspired wordsmith, language cascading flamboyantly onto the page, converting the “vicious minute’s hour” into a river of narrative time, currents flowing every which way.
The reader either surrenders and swims with the flow, or flounders, perhaps angrily, has the sensation of drowning and gives up. But do not give up on Ben Miller. Follow him on his journey into his own past, and, although Davenport on a bend in the muddy Mississippi River is probably a city you never wanted to know, you will see it, feel it, hear it, smell it, and not be able to forget it, Ben Miller’s “only hometown,” his immeasurable Dublin, his heartland Venice, his cornpone Athenian theater: “This city was my early grave, and the debarkation point of a future’s bones.”
In the poem chosen by Miller to set the tone of his book, Dylan Thomas, precocious teenage poet as he then was, wrote:
I want reality to hold
Within my palm,
Not, as a symbol, stone
Speaking or no,
But it, reality, whose voice I know
To be the circle not the stair of sound.
Ben Miller, writing in middle age, wants urgently to hold in his own palm the reality of his early years, knowing too that its voice is the circle not the stair of sound. Expecting a memoir, you will look in vain for straightforward chronology. There is a Prologue and an Epilogue that provide an ostensible chronological framework but there is no “stair of sound” for the reader to climb from a beginning to an end. There is a constant circling around and around, a digging deeper and deeper into the reality whose voice Ben Miller knows. Through a myriad of memories, impressions, descriptions, fantasies, he captures that reality in his palm and presents it to us in this “junkification of a boyhood idyll.”
The words “junk” and “idyll” are not casually used in the subtitle. They accurately capture the central paradox of this memoir, a memoir founded in paradox, growing out of it, one might say, but not in a quickly comprehensible progressive way. We feel the pain and the joy of this boyhood, see the ugliness and the beauty, the junk and the idyll, sometimes, often, at exactly the same moment. This is not light-hearted dada simultaneity but is closer to the deadly serious simultaneity of Picasso’s “Guernica,” or would be, if Miller’s sense of the comic did not pervade his language. Deadly serious however is his desire to get everything right, “and to get one little thing right, . . . I had to pry open my history entire . . .”
His tool for prying open history is and was writing itself:
Like a fervent paddlewheel my Bic pen churned in rooms and in cars and in stations and everywhere in between, trying to dredge up what was at the bottom of it all, what I was meant to reap from life’s vexing currents.
This is a memoir of childhood, but Miller is constantly aware of the “one big trick of childhood . . . its connectedness to and separateness from the adult life. Our first and oldest experiences tangle relentlessly with all that follows . . .” His memoir embodies this relentless tangle. The Epilogue takes Ben’s story up to the present day of his own middle age, but there is no closure there on his childhood. Nor does the Prologue begin at the beginning, but right in the middle of his recovery from a starvation diet that slashed his weight as a 14-year old boy from more than 200 to 100 pounds. “Fat Years and Thin Years,” this was the only calendar that held fast for him, outside this it was a struggle to get any date right.
The Prologue puts us on the first page of the book into the Writers’ Studio, meeting in a tenement in downtown Rock Island Illinois, across the river from Davenport, Iowa where Ben lived with his mother, father and five siblings. One of the Studio members finds him waiting outside the door for his first meeting and, writes Miller with hindsight, “produces an old key that opened the door to the rest of my life.” Years younger than any of the members, the young Ben in his post-anorexic neediness and his passion for writing is immediately accepted into their circle with kindness.
“I was the fool for love,” he says, and he found there the kind of love he needed, altruistic but not detached, the love of decent, concerned adults, and it carried him all the way through to the time he left for college when they packed him a going-away basket with everything he might need, from pen and paper to toothpaste.This farewell event, narrated as it is in the Prologue, circles forward far beyond the time of that first Studio meeting.
In the “present time” of the Prologue, he stands outside after the meeting and calls his mother on a pay-phone to pick him up. Foreshadowing many times later in the memoir where his mother leaves her children waiting in dangerous places, Ben waits:
I stood for a half hour in the close and cavernous night. Little lights here and there cast little flares that in the sky, over dark streets, formed an oily shimmer which blotted out all but the brightest stars.
The vivid and detailed memory of this half-hour wait in a “failed brick pedestrian mall” in deserted downtown Rock Island, on the Illinois side of the river, links the beginning of the boy’s recognition of his own sometimes rhapsodic feelings for his hometown Davenport, across the river, with sober social commentary filtered through the pen of the adult writer, Miller, on the deterioration of America’s downtown areas. Sober? Rhapsodic? In Miller’s hands, they run together.
Sidewalks — whether teal-blue in rain or silvered with snow or cratered as the moon — were a reliable way forward, maybe the only way, whereas diagonal mall bricks reflected no lunar light and led shoes only to the end of the mall, a few short blocks away.
The Prologue does not straightforwardly tell the beginning of Ben’s story, but it throws us directly into Ben Miller’s way of telling it. The boy stands and waits, “a castaway on the mall, a fly in Illinois aspic,” and the honking of his mother’s car announces her arrival: His sense of her jealous fears that her formerly fat, now frighteningly thin, favorite son has found a new intellectual refuge, outside her sphere of influence, are woven into the fabric of the narrative, into the ride home from the meeting, over the vibrating bridge grating onto River Drive, the voice of the mother going on and on while the boy “listened to the warm whistles of cool river wind, noted the blue and purplish gleams bejeweling the levees,” along the ghost road to 15 Crestwood Terrace, the “roach-infested address,” their home. The contours of Ben’s upbringing, “the low-octane mother-son odyssey,” begin to emerge, interwoven here with his newly strengthened Writers’ Studio ambitions to “make it in the Beauty and Truth racket”. The interweaving of past and present, of place and person, of impression and commentary, moves the story along, or better put, back and forth, narratives thick with detail, descriptions rich with narrative import.
Dylan Thomas wrote simply in an essay on how he began to write that he had “fallen in love with words.” Ben Miller undoubtedly also. But his manifest love of words is matched by his desire for precision, his delving into every detail to find its essence. The language of the memoir has come a long way in all the years since he was nurtured by the amateur writers of the Studio, but from time to time he drops into his prose clichés “in the parlance of the Writers’ Studio,” such as ”stopped in our tracks,” “my chest throbbed . . . my head spun.” This is not mockery, it is grateful, loving remembrance. At heart he remains always one with his Writers’ Studio friends, caught up still in the Beauty and Truth racket.
But so in a way are his parents, and this is another of the paradoxes that make this memoir endlessly fascinating and impossible to categorize. His well-educated parents, outrageously neglectful as they are, are caught up at some level in the same racket. Where does the boy Ben learn first to love poetry? As his friends in the Writer’s Studio might have said, at his mother’s knee. The mother, who undoubtedly abused him, the mother, who lacked the “patience, feeling and practical skills to care for one child, let alone six,” the mother who incessantly “misquoted the world’s loveliest poets,” the mother whose passion for literature he shared and who like him “always calmed down a little when there was a book in her hand,” this mother with her lectures on culture and on reading was, as he says, “a lot of what I had.” His father had himself written novels, unpublished but bound in expensive leather, enough to line a shelf in their filthy basement. Does one not detect at times a perverse tinge of pride in the “literariness” of the house?
Walk into any room in our home, and you encountered evidence of quashed literariness, the discarded notebooks, the capless pens, the anthologies butterflied on coffee tables—the luscious pulp innards of Dylan Thomas spilling out of butchered bindings.
Yes, but only a tinge. The young Ben knew early on that this chaotic house, was a nightmare home to six children. His educated lawyer parents wanted to make great art and they lived in squalor, producing six children in just over a decade, children whom they “not so much raised as reordered or disordered” (90) in a dirty house, where cockroaches crawled through the laundry chute and over dirty dishes, where windows were never washed, where the refrigerator was unstocked, where sheets lay unwashed on the beds and unwashed clothes lay in piles on the floor from which children had to fish out soiled t-shirts to wear in shame to school. And yet, and yet, language, the boy Ben’s stepping stone to his own life, was the most important currency in this family of “word-junkies,” and he describes the “stabbing of dark by art” as being practiced by his mother delivering true-crime stories and Dylan Thomas lyrics with equal bobbing enthusiasm, as well as by the unsheathed and jotting pens in the Writers’ Studio.
That Ben learns in the Studio to distinguish between the desire to be artistic and the actual production of art is a testimony to the seriousness with which he and the Studio members regarded the writing habit. It is his passport to another life, and in another of the book’s paradoxes it almost kills him, and certainly breaks him down in middle age when an adult breakdown follows as the day the night the breakdown of the child who metamorphosed through sheer will-power from a fat boy to a skeletally thin boy and so escaped his mother. Except that even after the adult breakdown and the outward complete break from his family, he has not escaped her.
His mother, whose favorite he is, “escapes” with him, the fat boy, up to his 14th birthday to fast food restaurants, the younger siblings sometimes running in desperation after the car, left at home as they are to their father who sits seemingly incessantly behind his newspaper and a cloud of smoke. Ben cannot resist these escapes (“Let’s leave them all behind and go to the Mall”) any more than he can resist the Big Boy hamburgers and other fast food delicacies with which his mother plies him. As a child, he senses her need for him, and is aware that he is helping her by giving in to her less appropriate advances, as when in private moments at bedtime when no one else is around he focuses on the sound of the leaves rustling outside as she strokes him and talks about her marital problems, telling him stories — what stories? The Speck massacre of student nurses (anyone who lived through the seventies will remember that one), the Manson murders, all the while whispering to him advice about what he should do if he were attacked. Of course she is molesting him—moh-lesting,to use the word coined in this family of word-junkies. Miller, the adult, does not however cast himself unambiguously as victim–seeing that she asked with such need and desperation he sympathized more with her than with himself. Her hurting him became him helping her. Central paradox.
Writing, filling notebooks with words as a boy, he comes to see that she is hurting him, that it must stop and he throws himself into his hunger strike, going down from 200 to 100 lbs. No simple chronology here. In telling of the years immediately before and after, he mingles the time frame to such a point that in one episode, the first book, chapter one, Twigmas, which tells the story of the Christmas Tree, made with astonishing and uncharacteristic virtuosity out of garden branches and twigs by the usually inactive father of the family, and christened “Twigmas” by the youngest daughter, the entire episode is told as if takes place in the earlier Fat Years when Ben was 12 and the youngest son Nathan, a new-born. But no, he realizes after narrating the episode, it all took place much later, including the hilarious trip downtown in the family car to get Christmas goodies from the bank teller at the drive-by window. He was actually fifteen, and thin, Nathan a tubby five-year-old, and the family had no car. No matter. The narrative stands.
Novelists like to play with ideas of the unreliability of memory. Julian Barnes did this recently with great success in his Booker prize-winning Sense of an Ending. Such play is generally less well received in autobiography. Miller, the autobiographer, is not playing with notions of unreliable memory. He is basically not playing at all. He is deeply and honestly researching his own memory. His narratives are packed with encyclopedic details of place and person, recreating “the curious glory of urban Iowa” as he experienced it, drawn, one can only imagine, from his own acute visual memory and from his years of jotting down notes in his “good old Mead notebooks” as a child and teenager. He does not need to produce these notebooks as proof of veracity — they are probably long gone — but the details are marked in his being if he can dig down deep enough to find them. And find them he does.
Miller, the memoirist, does not need to withdraw the narrative of the Christmas Tree, or change the date to fit reality. Rethinking the memory, he notes the mistake, sees it in its context, and consciously allows the narrative to stand. More than one of the siblings, he suggests, would have insisted they had a car at that time. “Avid wishfulness,” he writes, “allowed us Millers to tolerate an unacceptably harsh — yet inescapable—existence. It warped the most obvious facts or even briefly trumped them to recreate a fraught series of noir fairy tales that were intoxicatingly lived . . .”
The boy Ben himself grows up to be able to distinguish the noir fairy tale view of his family life, propagated unremittingly by his mother, from its ugly reality, and this separates him out from the rest of his family, causing his estrangement from them and winning him sanity at the price of several nervous breakdowns. He sees with painful clarity, as the other siblings do not, that their mother turned her lack of home-making ability into a virtuous bohemianism. In fact she does, Ben never fails to emphasize, many virtuous things, visiting her aged parents almost every evening, doing shopping for their neighbor, the elderly, orderly, bow-tie wearing Mr. Hickey, ably assisting “vulnerable urban Iowans” in her work at Legal Assistance, which supported the family for some time. She has impeccably liberal enlightened views — society is dominated by un-intellectual consumers addicted to needless conveniences. She can argue that the Miller family in its aggressive non-consumerism is fighting the good fight against philistinism. A small but dangerous step from here is to imply, as she frequently does, that cleanliness, neat clothes, decently cooked food, are inferior to the Miller household squalor.
She admires Brook Farm, the 1840s utopian experiment in communal living where all shared the workload and all had time for intellectual pursuits and this gave her a shorthand excuse “for every family delusion.” She re-invents it, peopling it with a host of latter-day free-thinkers, and pretends that all her children are to be Brook Farm geniuses. Meantime in the real world of the household, “roaches made for the dishes below a splintered sill cluttered with pennies, hydrogen peroxide bottles, puckered soap slivers, a balding toothbrush flaked with baking soda (her toothpaste) . . . ” And yet years later, letters from one of Ben’s siblings are still infused with his mother’s Brook Farm tone, the tone of: “Aren’t we a wonderful family for setting ourselves apart from others, living weirder?”
The mixture of idealism, self-deception and child neglect is too much for the young Ben to fathom. He loves and depends on his mother, as does any child, and consequently, he faces a devastating inner conflict: “If eager to be clear of her currents of pain, I was equally horrified of any final rejection and detachment.” That this should prove too much for a child will not surprise you, the reader, if you have ever fallen into an adult relationship with a person who in his or her own loneliness and need manipulates you, overpowers you constantly so that you, while wanting freedom become ever more dependent on that person’s love, that person’s need. Ben Miller’s memoir does more than evoke his own childhood, it embodies one individual’s attempt to escape this kind of bondage, an attempt that continues through his childhood into adulthood.
Years before the young Ben had met the decent souls in the Writers’ Studio, he had been driven by “many bizarre unbound nights with a despairing brilliant mother” to covet “solitude with pen and paper and books and blues records” and had at the same time been quietly educated by “the sweet courtly formalities” of daily visits to his elderly neighbor, Mr. Hickey. He is well aware that his mother at her best taught him about “family tragedy and world literature and politics and gender complexity” and much else, but he is convinced that the “plain good lessons” learned from Mr. Hickey saved him — everything from thinking of others, prizing discipline, to feeding sparrows, doing push-ups and using Kiwi shoe polish.
Mr. Hickey, a quiet, compulsively neat and orderly old man, is an unlikely lead character in a book packed with minutely drawn colorful characters — relatives, neighbors, school-teachers, school-mates: Mrs. Lombardo, ambitious mother of the little girl who wins tap-dancing contests and gets on TV, Mr. Rush, 91-year-old neighbor, who has a passion for growing rhubarb, Mr. Creighton, father of a school mate, who invents and tries to market a backyard skating rink, Mrs. Rose, wife of the coarse and angry retired railwayman, who produces paint-by-number renditions of the Lord’s Supper, Mrs. Finch, Kindergarten teacher in heavy dresses, her face the marbled white of uncooked bacon — one could go on and on, but this is pointless, since it is not in lists and summaries that the point of the memoir lies, but in its pages and pages of descriptive environmental detail, the point being to dig deeper and deeper into the whole junkified idyll of the boy’s life.
The junk of the title, the crudeness of character, the ugliness of many events, all this is seen through the filter of Ben’s love for his hometown, his family and, yes, his mother. The masses of actual accumulated junk that have gathered at the bottom of the Millers’ garden are described themselves with ugly precision in an episode in which the boy Ben is ordered by one of his particularly brutal neighbors, Mr. Dankert, the Budweiser delivery man, to pick up the junk: “What’s it gonna be, turkey, clean-up or the posse?” The boy pulls out the front of his Penguin shirt and fills it again and again with the revolting mess, carrying it, plodding from alley to yard, yard to alley. Young Ben employs his usual method for dealing with horrors and fixes his mind on other things, wishing himself into a different time of day, the 10:30 hour when the whole Miller family actually sits and laughs together – at what? At reruns of the Monty Python show, the loudest laughter of all coming from the father of the family, the one who normally laughed least. “But it was not Python time, it was Central Standard Dankert Time.” Junkified idyll. From start to finish of the memoir, for all the sharpness of his observational powers, for all the masses of accumulated junk in his garden, Ben is the fool for love.
In the Epilogue to the book, the middle-aged Ben Miller carries the story through the actual years that follow his leaving home, some 30 years, and he describes his estrangement from his family, the way he deliberately cut himself off from his mother and father at the time of his complete mental breakdown, his father’s death, the death of one younger sister who had been addicted to drugs. For years he has had no contact except for minimal communication with one sister. But while some critics have suggested that this Epilogue therefore gives closure to the narrative, it seems to me that it still floats in the same continuous time flow of the whole memoir where things happen but nothing is finished. It is in the Prologue that Miller writes:
I have everyone near, echo and profile. Daily I navigate the stormy presences of deep absences. Estrangement has not corrupted love nor made it less vital . . .
But there is tangible evidence of the continual presence of deep absences at the very end of the Epilogue when he returns in his mind to a family scene at Shannon’s Cafeteria, “a 1930s lunch phantasmagoria” which has figured in past episodes. He sees and describes as vividly as he ever did how Mother and he and his sisters, Elizabeth and Marianna (now dead), went there to eat in this “Depression-era hold-out” among the old habitués, with their unfashionable names and equally unfashionable clothes. “We saw our future in these ancients made of loose thread and thrombosis.” This past-time event is described in the very last pages of the memoir with all the vividness of a beginning.
Everyone, every scene is still near, echo and profile. Ben Miller is closer to his estranged family, the living and the dead, than many who have never lost touch with their own. The end of the Epilogue is still in the middle of the story. As is the beginning. Reality’s voice is the circle not the stair of sound. “Our first and oldest experiences tangle relentlessly with all that follows . . . and the new becomes old and the old new.”