To be honest, I was very excited to read False Starts from the get-go. This hasn’t always the case with me for books throughout my many years of reading. Some, for various reasons that range from an admittedly superficial, naive lack of interest in the subject matter or the cover has turned me off, I have been hesitant about. Sophie’s Choice was one such book. Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov being another. The Grapes of Wrath and Wuthering Heights serve as still more examples.
However, as I am now deeply embedded within middle age, my sight has become broader, more flexible (dare I say, receptive, even thirsty) to any sort of experience within a page, no matter the topic or author. Reflective hindsight dictates I listen to the years that have accumulated behind me and obey the forces within which are beckoning me to be open to anything in order to enhance my life. Granted, it has taken some honest introspective thought and a slow blossoming maturity level to recognize this. But I can say that, although I may be a slow learner of life, it is with this attitude that I approached Malcolm Braly’s book with an eager willingness. He did not disappoint.
To say that Braly is (was) talented is, in my mind, an understatement. Linguistically, he has a bare, no bones, plain, frank style about him that is point blank authentic beyond anything I’ve ever read. It’s simple (I can imagine some might even say dry), but that would be a misconception and hardly accurate due to his honesty and straightforwardness. And he is superbly candid and straightforward, like when he relates the occasional times he indulged in spates of homosexuality. All of these mannerisms in which he tells his tale reminded me of what a reviewer once wrote after reading Lines in the Sand: “It was like sitting down and having a meaningful conversation with the author over a beer.” I think that sums it up quite nicely.
And although I can certainly make comparisons of language from other authors who write in an extremely sophisticated manner, (William Styron comes to mind) I hardly think it is worth the time or effort. It’s not worth it, not only because I feel it is both demeaning and beneath his skill to do so, but because an important lesson has been demanding my attention as of late. That is I have come to realize that while language is, of course important, it is secondary to the content. And this is especially true when it comes to the genre of memoir.
As I have previously noted in an earlier essay, it is my belief that a memoir is a written expression of learning through living, an honest, evolutionary account of a human being groping in the dark for meaning and understanding of all the twists and turns our world can throw at us. I’m not even convinced anymore that there has to be an “ending” per se, or some sort of definitive conclusion, a final revelation of all that was learned, some grandiose explanation of the meaning of life and how that has ultimately transformed the author. Malcolm certainly didn’t provide this. He merely ended the account and the lessons he learned are subtly threaded throughout the narrative.
But I have digressed.
The point I am making (and one I have painfully learned) is that an author can write floridly about anything, but without this essential honest, heart felt content of memoir, without “the eyes staring in the mirror,” it doesn’t mean that much and the life that is desperately seeking a voice essentially falls flat on its wordy face.
Further, in keeping with the essential elements of memoir writing, he’s also in touch with his surroundings. He is aware of, and makes note of, the world around him: the depression, in his early paintings of starving people and the WWI soldiers, of the bureaucracy of education, the penal system, and what it tries to instill on an innocent, imaginative mind. Throughout the book there is a combination of introspection, action, and outside current events of the world, and although I have to admit, it would be very easy for him to go overboard with interior thoughts, he doesn’t. By the same token, it’s amazing that he was even that attuned to the outside world of events given he spent the majority of his life behind bars. But enough with the analysis. What struck me on a deeper level, a particularly personal one (albeit different in the sense of setting, time, and era) was that overall, in fundamental ways, he and I have a fair amount in common.
To begin with, I felt badly for him when he reported his parole violation, then was taken into custody nevertheless. I felt badly because I know with all too grim understanding that once the system gets a hold of you, it doesn’t want to let go. It has a saw blade grip, a centipedes legs that rip and tear at you if you make the slightest move outside or against their grain of thinking. I felt those same cutting edges when I applied for conscientious objection status upon coming home from the war. It wasn’t taken with enthusiasm, that much was readily apparent. And like the parole officers and the institution of imprisonment, they wanna keep you.
And when threatened with something outside the normal realm of their understanding, they even want to tighten their grip, if for no other reason than to prove to themselves that you can be rehabilitated, reconstituted to match their notions of what it means to be a stand up person, (a patriotic soldier) confined within the regulations they believe in so strongly, maybe more than the Bible sitting next to their beds. And they always look at you slightly differently. It’s subtle, but it’s there. That quizzical, yet condescendingly sympathetic look, as if to say, “You poor soul, you fucked up. We’ll show you the right way to walk,” that loudly proclaims their disdain for someone who would dare to violate their ideology, to think outside the box, outside an institutional or societal doctrine which has permeated them so much it now oozes from their pores like some sort of rancid jelly.
That’s just one example of many, but on a fundamental level, he and I share something deeper. We are both misfits and have fumbled through many false starts in life. Like him, I have had my brushes with the law, but unlike him I never went as far, nor have I spent any time in prison. I merely spent a night in jail when I was a teenager for the crime of larceny. Stupid of course, and something of which Malcolm also came to realize. No, our commonality is more within the context of how many times he and I have tried to “fit in,” to be an average normal, everyday citizen, and how bored and restless we both became while striving to live within those confines. Ironically, we both also felt an overwhelming desire to achieve that, a contradiction in my mind that has yet to be reconciled.
We both lurched from place to place, woman to woman, job to job, in an effort to find ourselves, to discover something vaguely definable that was always nagging in the back corner of our minds. And like him, I too once dreamed of “making it big,” of being in the spotlight of attention because for all of my life, I too have felt ignored, dismissed, and alone. We both scoured anything and everything outside of ourselves trying to find what could only be inside, afraid to face what lay within, terrified of what we might find, yet craved and needed to do so. We have both spent years desperately wanting to stare in the mirror, to listen to the whispers in our heads, yet when the opportunity to do so presented itself, we both turned away. We both struggled with the issues confronting us, running from them at any opportunity, finding refuge in superficiality. And in the end, we both found shelter from the storm within our writing. It was writing (and an accumulation of too many years) that allowed both of us to finally begin to come to grips with our situations, our lives, our mistakes, and who we truly are.
Yes, I understand Malcolm, better than I’ve understood other authors whose lives I lived in their pages. Tragically, his journey was cut short and I am saddened by that. But I will carry on, his spirit with me and not forgotten.