Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: A Girl's Thoughts

In July, I began a yearlong workshop with writer Kim Stafford, sponsored by Fishtrap, a writing center in Eastern Oregon. I'm the only fiction writer in a group of nine students--the others are writing memoir or natural history or both--but I was sure that Kim could help me see my stories in a new light. I haven't been disappointed.

Kim's newest book, 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared (Trinity University Press), is a memoir about his older brother, Bret Stafford, who committed suicide in 1988. I read it because I wanted to journey a little deeper into the Stafford family story after reading Early Morning, Kim's hypnotic biography of his father, poet William Stafford. I read it as well because Kim described its genesis to us at Fishtrap last summer, and I wanted to see if his structure worked. I didn't expect to learn quite so much from it about maleness.

Kim takes his title from a book Bret loved as a child. The book suggested, for example, that a boy might successfully yank a tablecloth out from under tableware. Bret tried this and broke a crystal glass.

Kim wrote a table of contents first, a list of nearly 100 incidents, to be loosely framed as tricks, from his childhood with Bret, their adolescence and college years together, their increasingly separate lives as young men, and, obliquely, about Bret's death when Kim was 39. He organized the titles under four phrases he and Bret said together as kids before sleep: good night, God bless you, have sweet dreams, and see you tomorrow. It is fascinating to ponder, after reading each episode--the longest is nine pages--how the section where Kim placed it illuminates its meaning. Kim's structure also allowed him to avoid a chronological telling of Bret's life.

"It is possible . . . to write in a series of short bursts," Kim says in his 2003 book, The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening an Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft, "and let the engine of the book's idea do the work of collecting these pieces into a whole book."

I loved the motif of the trick. It hints at so much that is fine in this book. Many of Bret's pursuits are just as tricky as the tablecloth and glass, but more serious--terribly serious. As a junior in high school, he organizes a mass planting of cherry trees. He leads Kim across a glacier repeatedly testing its safety by throwing a boulder ahead of them to see if the ice will hold. During the Vietnam War, he qualifies after long effort for C.O. status, but moves with his family to Canada anyway because he doesn't want to live in a country that would fight such a war.

Kim and Bret are close in age, and inseparable as children, but gradually their differences emerge. Kim reveals a great deal about himself in this book, particularly his struggles to please parents who give him a lot of freedom but seem to expect him to use it well, to do the right thing. Kim wanders his neighborhood at night while his parents sleep, climbs a hill and takes shelter under a tree during a lightning storm, and tries to break into his boyhood church to play his clarinet for God. He marries young and tolerates years of unhappiness before divorcing, teaches at the same college his father does, although in a different way, wanders and writes and wanders some more. He both conforms to and resists his parents' hopes and society's standards.

"After my brother died," Kim writes, "I asked our father why I had survived."

"'Bret was a saint,' he said. 'You're not. That's good.'"

Readers will wish this message had been delivered earlier and more effectively--to both boys, but especially to Bret.

I read memoir to live other lives. My own life, a girl's, most of it lived indoors, postponing many risks until after I'd raised my children, has little in common with Kim's. My father was quiet and remote like Kim's dad, but for different reasons, and since my father had to leave school in the fourth grade, his legacy to me didn't include writing. My mother loved children as Kim's mother did, but my mom kept an eye on us always, told us, whenever possible, how to handle every situation, wasted no time herself and expected us to waste none. In my family, no one wandered.

What I learned from this book is that growing into manhood in this country in the second half of the twentieth century was tricky indeed. Sexual relations, from a young man's perspective--very, very tricky. Finding a career path, making a living, supporting a family while also trying to be a member of it, all tricky. You were liable to lose the best part of yourself. I knew this, but now I know it.

"Can I say it now, my brother?" Kim writes. "Maybe I can say it for you: There is something inside a boy, not yet man, that has almost no chance. To show this thing would be taken wrong, surely, cause pain, steel your resolve for utter reticence. This wordless treasure could not come forth as it is felt within. When I looked down naked on our town, when I walked the midnight rails, when I climbed the vine, and finally tried to play my heart, I was apart from the trials to come---sex, money, resume, family, and all the rest. By some language of pure light, I and the moon could send the best of the boy in safety beyond the man."