Gunmetal Blue: A Memoir
by Shane Neilson
Palimpest Press, 2011
by Brian Fawcett
Thomas Allen, 2011
"I can't go on; I'll go on." - Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable
Derek Weiler (1968-2009) had the above quotation tattooed on his forearm. As he explained on his blog, now only available on the Wayback archive:
I don’t really know why most people get tattoos – novelty? lark? body as canvas? message to the world? But anyway I know I got mine mainly as an act of defiance. I wanted to engage this treacherous renegade in some way, to remind it that it has to deal with me. And also to remind myself that this flawed, frayed skin I wear is mine for good. That this is what I have to work with, for better or for worse.
Weiler passed away in 2009 at age 40. He'd lived bravely for many years with a heart condition.
I was thinking about Weiler today, partly in relation to these two books, and partly in relation to my own life. This past week my wife heard medical news that affects us all. Last year, she had breast cancer and the associated treatments. Six months ago, we were told it was effectively gone, but now it has returned, this time in her liver. Doctors are hopeful, but we've entered an arena we don't want to be in.
We can't go on, but we must go on.
Gunmetal Blue and Human Happiness are both memoirs, both essay collections, both written by reflective, analytical, skeptical and humanistic literary men. In many ways, these are books written to address the stark conundrums of existence, the Beckettean quandaries.
Brian Fawcett's book is, at base, a memoir of his parents, Hartley Fawcett and Rita Surrey, who were, he maintains, "happier than most of their generation" (240). Shane Neilson's book is structured as a collection of non-fiction pieces, some of which are memoirs of his life as a general practitioner, some are essays on poetry, and some reflect on his time in a hospital psychiatric ward, where he was a patient for many months following a suicide attempt.
By way of critical summary, let me say that both books are incomplete and flawed, but they both also contain lovely moments, deep feeling and thought. They have bitten off massive subjects, and they are worthy of the authors' efforts.
There are a couple of images from Gunmetal Blue that keep returning to me. One is of a middle-aged man on a stationary bicycle, continuously peddling. He has prostate cancer. He's going to die, but he can't stop cycling. The other image is of the author attempting to throw himself out of the window of the psyche ward and being blocked by an orderly. Later, the author realized that the window is a metaphor. Does he want to continue his life or not? Only he can ultimately decide. (He is, in this respect, very different from the peddling man.)
The main images from Human Happiness concern the author's parents, whom he portrays in significant psychological and sociological detail. Each lived nine decades or more. They lived primarily in Northern British Columbia. His father was a self-made business man, his mother a home-maker who had breast cancer in her late-40s.
On the opening page of the book, Fawcett notes what happened the last time he spoke to his mother: "She announced that she hated my father." At this point, they'd been married 64 years. Within weeks, she'd be dead. Hartley, then in his 90s, would go on to remarry, starting his flirting at his late-wife's wake: "I have to arrange a housekeeper. I don't suppose any of you are going to look after me."
I was compelled by the portrait of Hartley and Rita. I liked them. I thought they were interesting. In full confession mode, however, there were portions about inter-generational conflict that left me baffled. Too simple. Brian's self-portrait comes across as a cliched baby-boomer. Too general. Uncompelling.
Shane Neilson, on the other hand, may well provide too much information for some readers. And too much variety for others. This is a book about overcoming a mental illness crisis, but it's also a book about the trials and tribulations of a young doctor, and also a book about the author's love of language and the potentially healing powers of poetry.
It's all interesting, but it doesn't always hold together.
The portraits of Neilson's patient congregants are classic character studies. Life is what happens, John Lennon sang, when you're busy making other plans.
I would like to write more about these two books; there is much within them to reflect upon; however, my life, these days, is elsewhere.
Onward we go.