Lookout Books has done it again. First they published the marvelous Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman, then they published a short story collection by Steve Almond which had the pizzazz and quirkiness of all of Almond’s work, followed by the devastatingly beautiful collection of poems by John Rybicki.
Now they’ve come out with a memoir by Ben Miller. One of Lookout Book’s missions is to publish “undiscovered” or “underappreciated” writers. I don’t know where Ben Miller fits into this—maybe underappreciated? For surely I feel that I should have heard of him. But his memoir follows in the footsteps of the other books by Lookout—it’s original, risky, irreverent, and wholly engaging.
In River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll and the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa (I know, I know—quite a title, which matches the maze-like sentences), Miller moves from the disgusting to the sublime in a single dash and no topic is off limits, whether it be defecting in his pants during an orchestra concert or discussing the suspicious way his mother rubbed him down with oils.
In fact, the topics that are most uncomfortable are the ones the author returns to again and again. One of these is his epic weight loss. As a child he became obese, partly due to the way his mother and him would roam the local Target in the middle of the night and binge on candy and other junk food.
Miller’s mother would “choose” Ben over the other children to be her co-conspirator. Perhaps you could say they were co-dependent. But when Ben loses a colossal amount of weight (over a hundred pounds), she is actually angry at him.
It is hard to describe the mother in concrete terms. She is trained as a lawyer, but has somehow failed greatly along the way. Her failure eats her up, maybe consumes her, but also feeds a voracious appetite (a literal and metaphysical appetite). With Ben she sees a young apprentice or at least promise.
She wants her children to be different, but you do not hear too much about this. It’s hinted at, as most things in the book are only hints. I’ve never read a memoir (especially such a long memoir) where things are so fully discussed, yet so slippery. The mother is not evil, just bizarre, clingy, ravenous. One of Miller’s great attempts is to not be so ravenous.
His father may be the opposite—he is sedate. He is portrayed as a man glued to an armchair, sponge-like and gloomy. He too is a failed lawyer and Miller returns again and again to the image of the father’s legal files left out in the rain to rot. This mess seems to describe the decay of the father and his fatalistic pull towards death. Both parents have given up in a sense—the house is a wreck with cat feces shoved into room corners and mold and decay cluttering the house. After reading a chapter or two the reader can literally feel the filth of the house. Now wonder Miller wants desperately to escape.
But there is a sunnier version of life and this version lies with Mr. Hickey, a neighbor who takes Miller in. Mr. Hickey is the opposite of the parents—sane, orderly, chipper, with a collection of bow ties and sweaters. (When Mr. Hickey dies, Miller actually inherits the bowties.) He routinely lets Miller come to his house to chat, to watch sports, and to feed Miller food that will actually be good for him. He suggests exercise for the overweight kid.
Other friends also become a surrogate family for Miller. He becomes part of a writer’s group, a collection of eccentric misfits, who Miller feels at home with. And later when Miller moves to New York, he leaves his family behind for good in favor of the company of a select group of writers and his wife.
Yet in spite of physical detachment in New York, he becomes consumed by his family even as he tries to free himself from their grip. In the end, he writes a letter to his siblings, explaining that he was molested by their mother. Instead of getting the support he craved, his siblings responded by denial and by downplaying his pain.
He lashes back and that is that. He calls up his mother and father, begging them to “get help.” When they don’t, he never sees them again. The last part of the book is made up mostly of the attempts at reconciliation and the disbelief that his family is gone to him. When he learns from a friend that his father and sister have both died and that he wasn’t invited to the funerals, all illusions are shattered.
Yet, his greatest attempt at loving his family is in the words themselves. Miller writes about the cathartic process of writing, “It had nothing to do with material gain or fame, and nothing to do with any calculated and dry system of symbols. Writing for me was one way of living—of utilizing life’s gift… The writing had always been my best shot at synthesis, at regaining a happy wholeness lost to the strangest circumstances.”
These circumstances included developing anorexia and recovering one morning by the delight and fulfillment of tuna fish on a Ritz cracker. If this sounds strange, well this book is strange. It is also massive at 460 pages, but this is a life, after all. For Miller, any less dense book wouldn’t seem right. (So much of the book seems to be about excess—excess weight, excess greed, etc.)
It is fitting that the very last pages of the book describes a meal at Shannon’s, a popular Iowa restaurant. Miller describes the meal this way: “My favorite meal at Shannon’s was the eerie Twenty-Piece Chicken Special, a heap of minuscule breaded drumsticks: tender two-inch meshes of gristle and grease that went down in delicious lip-drenching bites.” He goes on about the custard and fruit cocktail which he describes as “white as a ghost of Eden,” but you get the idea.
We’ve all run into (I’m sure) people who tell us (gently or emphatically), “Don’t think about that any more; it’s all in the past.” When Miller writes about those files kept out in the rain, he does so with wonder, with curiosity, with feeling. He returns to that image several times and each time it’s as if he’s looking at the image as if for the first time. Looking back on painful images can be cathartic. They remind us that we are alive, that our experiences and observations are unique to us. By returning to what is the worst, Miller has given us the best.