Even now, after only a few short months, I can’t remember the message in its entirety without digging through my files to locate it. I’ll re-read it, poring over each word for clues to my past. But mostly my brain gets stuck on one sentence, and try as I might to get past it, I can’t.
“You and I were walking home for lunch in 5th grade from Governor Bent the afternoon President Kennedy was shot,” the message said. The writer’s name drew not a particle of remembrance.
My suspicions aroused, I called my older brother. He was the social one of us three brothers, with an uncanny ability to remember people and places long gone. When he answered, I asked, “Who is this guy?”
I’m almost finished with Tobias Wolff’s memoir, This Boy’s Life, and I have to say I’ll be glad when I am. I’m also glad it’s a Kindle book, that it cost me only five dollars, and that it’s not going to take up valuable shelf space. But mostly I’m suspicious.
Years ago, after a particular gruesome memoir was published to high acclaim, several reviewers cast doubts on the author’s remarkable feat of recollection that included extended dialogue, minute trivia and detail approaching that of a novelist. To a man (and several women), reviewers could not in any way recall their own childhood lives with such precision. In fact, for many of them, great swathes of it were utterly blanked out, destitute of even a glimmer of a memory. How, then, were these authors so finely detailed in their stories? In particular, considering the unwavering fallacy of memory, how were readers, or they themselves, positive that what they wrote about actually transpired?
As I read these indictments my head nodded yes yes yes to each bruising jab. The obvious conclusion—the only conclusion, indeed—was that much of what passes for memoir is little more than a fictionalized account. Nobody said outright that the works were a lie—well, in James Frey’s case they did, and factually—but readers were advised to take them with a hefty dose of disbelief. My own advice would have been far harsher: with all the wonderful books out there, why waste your time?
Okay, I thoroughly enjoyed Alexandra Fuller’s autobiography, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. It was my introduction to autobiographical writing, chosen mostly for the content. In it, she describes the dismantling of white rural life during the Rhodesian civil war. As I grew up on Tarzan novels before gravitating to the works of Robert Ruark about the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s, plus anything else I could find as long as it had plenty of sex and violence and took place in Africa, the place seemed an imposing medley of otherworldly beauty and terror. The Dark Continent never seemed so dark as during Ruark and Fuller’s times, though today’s headlines make them pale by comparison.
But even as I reveled in Fuller’s tale of the nation’s bloody descent into anarchy, and notably her often humorous portrayals of family events such as the time her mother took apart the kitchen with an Uzi while trying to kill an invading python, I was struck by her narrative use of dialogue. Surely, I thought, she couldn’t remember the exact words spoken during these events, many which transpired during her formative years, and yet there they were, formally enclosed within quotation marks. Which, to a journalist, indicates incontrovertible, indisputable veracity.
Now that I’ve spent the past week living someone else’s childhood, my initial forebodings have only deepened. Wolff and other memoirists would have us believe in their capacity for total recall. And I don’t buy it for one second.
I’ve always felt I was fairly average in every way, that my limitations in remembering details of my childhood were the same for everybody. The memoir-lambasting critics expressed my own disbelief and prejudices and in so doing absolved me of any lingering guilt. We were normal and unexceptional. If the memoir writers were telling the unvarnished truth, they were freaks of nature. If not, they were embellishers or liars; the final judgment was ours alone. Within a chapter of finishing Wolff’s book, mine was already made. If I wanted to read fiction, I would.
But memory, I was to learn, isn’t doled out in even measures.
The message and its timely arrival sent me reeling. Who was this man who remembered walking home with me from grade school, and what else did he know?
My brother said he lived at the end of the block with several brothers, that they were good people. When I contacted the man—Paul was his name—I admitted to having no recollection of him. His own memory was formidable, however.
“I remember you had a Crossman BB gun, a pretty cool battery-operated M-14, a hand grenade, and a nice selection of the then-current Sgt. Rock comic books,” he wrote. “I remember you and I spending a little time watching your dad install a Corvette engine in the green Suburban. In fact, it was helping my dad work on his cars that got me interested in engineering in the first place. I remember meeting your grandmother, who lived in a trailer or mobile home off of Washington, south of Menaul, near an arroyo. I remember a couple of times watching Combat, possibly also Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, on TV at your house. I think your dad worked at Sandia or Kirtland.”
Kirtland Air Force Base, actually. I remembered the hand grenade but not the M-14. I lost my virginity in the Suburban.
His letter was like opening a door onto a forgotten past. Slowly, as if emerging from a dark pool, bits and pieces floated to the surface: the house on the corner with its dirt yard and dead trees, cinderblock walls separating the houses, the view north from the corner of Palomas and Comanche. Of him, nothing. Nor of our trip home. There was only a somber house, my mother weeping, the television droning about an event that would touch our lives in some dark unseen way, and a forgotten friend patiently waiting outside the door saying you can remember, you can.