Here’s the set-up: A hotshot Manhattan book editor with a winning track record of bestsellers and fine writers thrives in the limelight of New York publishing. Until, that is, the Internet and Amazon and self-publishing collude to bring traditional publishing to its knees. Downsized and tossed out of his job, our man opts to return home to Paris. Not bad, eh? Except, in this case, it’s Paris, Missouri (population zip).
Add to that the fact that our man—author and narrator George Hodgman—decides to stay put in the tiny town of his conflicted Midwestern upbringing (being gay in a small town in the Heartland is no one’s idea of an easy fate) largely in order to care for his aging, ailing mother, Betty, and the world of Bettyville is thus inaugurated.
In a market glutted with memoirs, Bettyville is unique. In fact, it’s just as one-of-a-kind in its integrity and authentic wit and grief as Hodgman and his mother are. In no way does the author veer into sentimental slop or sit-com clichés. Instead, the magic to be found in this important memoir derives from the author’s compassion for his mother’s battles with dementia and all the infirmities preceding her descent into such a destabilizing illness, combined with wry humor about his own struggles.
The book’s tone combines poetic resignation with sardonic wistfulness, and what emerges in passage after passage on page after page is a mythic kind of empathy:
“I have been away from New York, living at home, in our little town for more than three years now —because I do not want my mother to be alone with all the things she is feeling as her self drifts off. I don’t want to put her in a place that will make her worse instead of better. I don’t want her to be lonely. Dementia is not treatable. But one can scrub away at the edges a bit, lifting the depression and the terrible anxiety she carries, the anxiety of knowing she is drifting away on her little boat toward some far off, unnameable spot,” the author writes.
But it’s not just Betty and her only child, George, who struggle. Another part of this evocative portrait of how we live now is the illustrative way that Hodgman notes the collapse of small-town America. The once thriving economy that allowed for a solid middle-class confidence in the Missouri where Hodgman grew up as a child in the 1960s and a young man in the 1970s, well . . . it’s scarcely there. Unemployment crises, union shredding, deregulation, and myriad other socio-economic factors have turned the Norman Rockwell milieu of the author’s youth into a bleak wasteland.
However, this memoir’s delicate balance between atmospheric details and life outside of Betty’s house never interferes with the core of the narrative. And that core can be defined simply: Regardless of all of their lifelong differences, there is between Betty and George an unconditional love that transcends all conflicts.
And as the self-exiled Manhattan book editor in George gives way to the observant, astute, self-deprecating full-time caregiver that he must become to ensure his own mother’s tenuous ability to remain at home, the memoir becomes an elegy for the two of them. It’s a lamentation for a life (hers) that’s receding, while at the same time a meditation on the author’s transitional plunge into his advancing years.
The subtle, exquisite literary excellence of Bettyville is accomplished through Hodgman’s masterly restraint. Every cliché is avoided and each pitfall is deftly outrun. Is it true that the author’s parents could never openly acknowledge their son’s gay orientation? Yes, true. But that does not mean that awful discord or tempestuous arguments resulted. Instead, all-American and ultra-Midwestern mores were always in effect.
Everyone knew, but no one spoke freely with either acceptance or rejection. Yet, the onset of AIDS in the 1980s (which coincided with the author’s coming out) could only exacerbate and intensify the deep love, fierce worries, and dread expectations of Betty and her husband, Big George, whose son was living on the edge of a culture they never knew. Aside from exploring his emerging gay identity, Hodgman also immersed himself in drug use (eventually completing rehab) while deploying his editorial gifts on behalf of many authors whose books he shepherded into print.
It’s on these (and other) levels that the memoir works seamlessly. While we never lose sight of the irascible, often lucid but sometimes foggy-headed Betty, we also get a guided tour from the family-farms-and-small-business milieu of rural Missouri decades ago, to the intellectually liberating (but rampantly homophobic) state university campus environment of the early 1980s; and from there right on into the halcyon days of New York in the Eighties, where everything the small-town boy left behind, and the ambitious man freely footloose in the capital of the world, congealed. Always, though, the episodic narrative circles back to Betty in twilight.
Now in his 50s (with Betty in her 90s), it is in the memoir’s many illustrations of life and dignity and fleeting independence being fought for on a moment-to-moment basis that the book achieves the quality of a prose poem.
Consider these words:
“My mother is sitting in front of the mirror at the hairdresser’s on the suburban outskirts of St. Louis, peering at her reflection as if she just cannot fathom what on Earth became of the woman she used to see there. Someone is almost missing. She is almost missing. She senses it. We sense it. It chills us, but we are silent about what is happening. Maybe if we can change her hair, we can bring her back a little. Maybe if she can look in the mirror and see someone she remembers, she will feel a little more comfortable in her skin. It’s the little things. That’s what taking care of someone is to me, the little things that for a moment or two hook her back to life or bring a sliver of light to the eyes. If I were to make a list of suggestions for caretakers, it would be all about little things, treats and surprises, and special foods, and little presents on dark days.”
In writing a loving tribute to his mother and her fading days, George Hodgman has created a work of art. Bettyville is literature.
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