A WORLD OF HURT
Danielle Cadena Deulen, The Riots, University of Georgia Press, 2011
Reviewed by Kirk Wisland
One of my favorite songs by the Drive-by Truckers is little-known chestnut called "A World of Hurt." The chorus, a simple raspy croon—"it's gonna be a woooooorrrrlllld of hurt"—on repeat for measures at a time, would seem on its face to be a depressing and self-defeating outlook on life. But the music, the background canvas upon which the story is painted, is so exquisite, so achingly beautiful—pedal-steel guitar floating down like washes of pink and orange on the beach-sunset of a near-perfect day—that you start to hear the chorus as a promise rather than a threat. The song works because it is a song of acceptance and perseverance—about accepting that life's an ocean, and knowing that the key is in enjoying every moment of peace and tranquility one is afforded between gales.
I thought about that song a lot while reading The Riots, Danielle Cadena Deulen's exquisite essay collection*—winner of the 2010 AWP award for Nonfiction. The Riots is rooted firmly in that world of hurt, mired in the struggle to understand and accept the past, and to do so—crucially—without being defeated by the onslaught of negative memory.
And an onslaught it is: poverty, drug abuse, suicide, self-loathing, rape, racism, physical abuse, failed marriage, lost loves and a myriad of other moments detailing our epic capacity for hurting each other, all the ways that we suffer the burns and come back to pick at the scar tissue later.
These Riots are exactly that—a succession of riots and lulls, riots and lulls—but even in the calm between the storms there is a tension that never fully dissipates. We desire long, languid tranquility, while knowing, during the shorter, wispier pieces—the series of Still Lives—"with Oaks, with Sparrow, with Summer Wasps, with Doldrums, with Unfinished House"—that the respite is temporary. The sum of this work reveals a mastery of the show. Deulen doesn't tell us—she pulls us into her world, letting us see through her lens. She defines this as the Aperture in the third chapter—a way of describing her world, her brother's autism, her father's abuse of the brother, her feelings of guilt about not being strong enough to intervene: "Cowardice is an adjustable opening in one's psyche that limits the amount of light that can enter."
The Riots is also a wide-ranging exploration of form. The prose throughout is tight, frequently short and punchy. Simple, but not easy. Many of Deulen's moments start with tiny bits—two or three word fragments, themes repeated like an engine chugging to life, the prose evolving from primordial snippets into fully cleaved thought. We see this in "Aperture," when she first breaks into describing her brother's autism: "Turn away. It's easy to turn away. It's much easier than looking directly. Don't look here. Don't look at me. My brother walks quickly... Or he paces. He paces around the room sometimes and is unable to stop. Unable to stop making repetitive motions and sounds, fragments of sentences, noises that have no connection to the context." The descriptions speak in the language of the thing they describe. There is plenty of sonic and lyrical variation throughout The Riots. In addition to those repetitions, those beautiful triplicates, we have entire chapters—"Early Adulthood" and "Adolescence"—comprised of sentence fragments mashed together into one undulating wave of words, a kind of snapshot of moments—some hugely significant, some exquisitely obscure. The effect leaves the reader feeling like we're getting a strobe-light glimpse of significant eras, the auto-summary distillation of half-decades. The way we remember things.
The ordering of these two examples—"Early Adulthood" coming in the first thirty pages, "Adolescence" showing up seventy pages later, is another aspect of what I really loved about these explorations: the timeline. We move through The Riots—from chapter to chapter, paragraph to paragraph—with sudden, unapologetic leaps. In the same way that our minds, our memories, actually work. Frequently a color, a thought, a sound, will spark these flashbacks. Deulen doesn't tell us she's leaving the scene, jumping into the wormhole of memory—she just jumps, and we follow. These cuts often birth a moment of lost equilibrium, but after a sentence or two we're through with her, and we don't mind because these swan-dives are so true, because this is a known experience—the way our personal timelines warp and fuse. Our memories are cluttered and unorganized. Random sparks frequently ignite unexpected associations, regardless of the inconvenience of the ensuing blaze. This is elucidated best in "After the Flood," which starts out ostensibly as an essay about travel in Vietnam, but transforms into an elegy for, and about, the past—a braided narrative wherein a random drunken moment on the dance-floor of a club in Ho Chi Minh City brings a sexual assault from the author's teenage years back into immediate focus—a half-decade later, half a world away. Vietnam: nation of flooded rivers, drenched in a sorrowful past, but surviving into the future anyway. Like nation, like author.
Deulen also uses the alterations in timeline as a way to keep the reader off-balance, to bring us to unexpected moments of anguish or empathy. One of the most tragic scenes in The Riots comes in the chapter "Summer Pageant," in which the author, soon to enter second grade, takes part in an impromptu back-yard theatrical performance of "Bad Mommy, the Baby and Good Friend." Her gaggle of neighborhood kids perform with painstaking detail—including the imaginary cutting and snorting of lines of cocaine by the Bad Mommy, the slapping of her child (real contact) and the intervention of the Good Friend, which leads to a screaming match that brings the author's mother to the back yard to investigate. The scene is heartbreaking—and doubly-so—as told through the "play" of the children.
The most powerful use of non-linear time concerns the narrative arc of Deulen's father. The collection begins in "Still Life with Flashing Lights" with a childhood scene of the father passed-out drunk on the floor, lit by the flashing blue and red strobe of the police car parked outside. This is followed by "Theft," in which the author, now an adult, talks to her father, who has just been released from jail for an assault on a girlfriend. Thus our expectations of the Deulen patriarch are set early on: bad father, raging drug addict, violence-prone alcoholic. Yet near the end, in the third-to-last piece, "Hindsight," we find Deulen writing her father's story, speaking to him in the second-person, sharing the tragic arc of his life. This includes a history of family suicides—Deulen's father being told by his father every time they ride across the St. Johns Bridge in Portland, that "two of us have jumped from here." Deulen imagines her father's early struggles with optimism, his belief—instilled by this father—that he is mentally and physically superior to other men, the weight of those expectations, the dreams crushed, a descent into drugs and alcohol. While not expressly offering forgiveness, these details at least make her father an empathetic character, show his humanity, elucidate the struggles, not just the demons. This chapter ends with a simple declaration: "I don't want this for you," followed by an offer to lead him, as a young boy, out of one of the nightmare moments of his childhood, to help him escape the pain he carries by way of an "empty highway that leads to other cities, other versions of our lives."
* My only real complaint about this book—which, conveniently enough, will allow me to digress into a rant I've been looking forward to unleashing for a while—is the word memoir. Or, more precisely, the absolute (and one must assume purposeful) banishment of that descriptor from the premises of The Riots.
I know that the word "memoir" has fallen into disrepute, has become a term of dismissal, falling from the lips of writers, critics and academicians alike with the kind of derisive tone one suspects big Hollywood stars use when referring to their fellow union members working in soap operas.
Which isn't to say there haven't been a lot of crap memoirs in the past decade. We all know the names, titles and Oprah-scandals that have conspired to tarnish this noble pursuit.
And to an extent it is we—the readers, writers and movie-makers—who have conspired to sully the term memoir, because at some level we all lust after that perfect ending. We all want the story of triumph over adversity. Addiction conquered, field of battle claimed. We are all the putative Rocky Balboas of our worlds. Knockout, kiss on the beach, sunset, roll credits...
But what validates memoir isn't conquest, but survival. At their best, memoirs are about how we live, are an admission of our failings—not as a set-up for the inevitable buzzer-beating triumph—but as a reference guide to humanity, as a tome of evolution, as an acceptance of all of our human frailties; the messiness, the philosophical, moral, ethical and spiritual gray area in which we humans wallow away the vast majority of our lives. In struggling to rise above our humanity, and in occasionally succeeding, we are at our best.
It is precisely this strife, the human morass, that makes some of my favorite memoirs—Jim Carroll's Basketball Diaries, Dinty W. Moore's Between Panic and Desire, the collected life works of Spalding Gray, and now, added to this list, Danielle Cadena Deulen's The Riots—work so well. Not victory. Just toeing up to the starting line. Earning our Participant ribbons.
The Riots is officially coined as a collection of "personal essays." And to a large extent, they can function as individual pieces. But the true power of these chapters is found in the body they build, the connection between tissues, the literary tendons, explicit or implied, that hold the whole being together. And this togetherness—this body—is a memoir.
And now finally to my second, albeit minor, digression: the ending. I am not, in general, a fan of the direct-address ending (or beginning or middle). Too often this is used as a way to draw attention to some cute trick in the prose, in a fashion that leaves me annoyed with a writer who has pulled me out of scene to say look, look! Look what I'm doing here! So when—in the last two paragraphs of the final haunting chapter, "A Momentary Stay Against Confusion"—Deulen switches to speaking to us directly, I found myself initially resistant.
But I re-read that final chapter once, twice, four times. And I came to have a different point of view. In that final flourish, the direct-address wrap-up works because the author uses it as a moment of clarity, as an honest reckoning, and because Deulen admits, in full simple surrender, that there is no epiphany, no triumphal moment, no cheering crowds, no walk-off homerun: "after a decade of considering, reading the signs, drawing my mind over these scenes, I've concluded nothing from them." While we might not believe her declaration that she hasn't drawn any conclusions by the end of this impressive tome, we love her for that forthright lack of finality, her acknowledgement of the self as a work-in-progress, for saying simply, I don't know.
So for now I'm blissfully trapped by Danielle Cadena Deulen's beautiful The Riots fused in the soundtrack of my mind with those peals of pedal-steel. It has been, is now, and will be, a world of hurt, she seems to say. Here's what happened, here's how I got through, here's what I think now.
But I don't know.