Monday, February 8, 2010
But I have always resisted on philosophical grounds, falling back on my long-held belief that wrestling with personal demons is perhaps the defining characteristic of the human condition. It sure the hell isn’t contentment or bliss that pushes us, right?
So it was with a certain amount of interest that I recently read Harry Middleton’s memoir “The Bright Country.”
I had only a vague idea of who Middleton was, and I had never read any of his books due to my natural skepticism toward much of the genre of flyfishing literature. But I was intrigued with Middleton after learning that at the time of his death in 1993, he was working as a garbage collector in a small town in Alabama. This after publishing five (I believe) highly acclaimed books, working as a long-time editor at Southern Living magazine and writing freelance pieces for some of the biggest publications out there.
How do you go from that, to that? It’s a fascinating question. Artistic success is something I'm keenly interested in, and commercial failure is something I'm keenly familiar with, so I thought perhaps Middleton was a writer to check out. So I did. I bought a copy of “The Bright Country” as well as two other books of his.
“The Bright Country” is, in essence, a memoir about coping with depression. The cover says “A Fisherman’s Return to Trout, Wild Water, and Himself.” But “The Bright Country” has about as much to do with trout fishing as Robert Pirsig’s book has to do with tuning up your Honda. Fishing is simply the template upon which Middleton etches his story.
And that’s really what struck such a chord with me. When Middleton writes about fishing and wild water as his “ruinous addiction” and serving as ballast for a life that otherwise seems to be coming unhinged, he’s speaking a language I understand.
Now I have never liked the word depression, because I never thought it fit me. I prefer to call myself a melancholy pragmatist. And despite my demons, I have stayed largely sane in the face of a largely insane world through self-medication. Some have booze, others drugs, sex, gambling. Any port in a storm. Like many, I have temporarily dropped anchor in a few of them.
But very early on in life I found my primary solace in the solitary comforts of books, ponds, rivers, woods, fields and the company of dogs. I found something there I simply couldn’t find anywhere else. I knew it the first time I walked along a forgotten little trash-strewn suburban creek more drainage ditch than stream, casting for bluegills and finding such wonder and mystery in its tepid waters. I knew it the first time I sat huddled and freezing against the base of a tree as a buck - the first I’d ever seen not running like hell in the opposite direction – apparated before me like a passing drift of smoke. And I knew it the night I first heard the plaintive calls of a passing flock of Canada geese, somewhere far above me in the impossibly black night.
To a young boy recently fatherless through divorce, it was all so new and wondrously intoxicating. Fishing, hunting, tramping the woods with gun or rod, mostly alone or with whatever mutt we had at the time. It filled something inside me, some black hole that simply didn’t respond to anything else. I didn’t fish and hunt because my daddy did and that’s what was expected of me. I didn’t fish and hunt for social enjoyment or camaraderie. I didn’t fish and hunt simply because I liked to shoot things, or catch things. I didn’t fish and hunt because I needed to put food on the table. I fished and hunted because that’s what centered my soul at a time when it was in desperate need of it.
And it still does to this day. Even with a beautiful wife who loves and accepts me - flaws, moodiness and all - and two young boys who, when they’re not driving me nuts are a constant reminder of what really matters in life, fishing and hunting still fill that undefined, uneasy hole that plagues those of us with wandering, troubled spirits.
I’ve never been a particularly gregarious or social outdoorsman. And to be honest, that can be pretty damn lonely sometimes. But you are what you are, and for better or worse that’s who I am: a dweller, a brooder, a thinker, and so I have always been drawn to those writers and artists who share that vague, nebulous sense of discontent and restlessness. I’ve never quite trusted those preternaturally happy, eternally optimistic people who seemingly never worry, doubt or despair. And if you’re reading this and you are a preternaturally happy, eternally optimistic person who never worries, doubts or despairs, I apologize. No offense, really. We just occupy different worlds.
But Middleton is definitely of my world. His writing has a quality of bemused despair that reminds me much of Kurt Vonnegut. Indeed, Middleton mentions Vonnegut as an influence and that influence is obvious in the cadence and structure of his writing.
As much as I liked it, though, I did have some quibbling little issues with “The Bright Country.” One, it’s pretty obvious the book is at least semi-fictionalized. Middleton described it as “more real than imagined” but many, if not most of the characters, settings, events and dialogue were simply too perfect to the story to be real. Second, Middleton was an incredibly wordy writer. I’ve got a pretty good vocabulary, but some of his words were simply lost on me, to the point where they began distracting a bit from the story.
In return for enduring those minor annoyances, however, I was rewarded with some stunningly beautiful writing. Middleton was obviously a writer of enormous talents, but apparently even larger internal demons. What else could explain this blurb from the author’s bio on the dust jacket of “The Bright Country,” which incidentally wa published in 1993 (the year of his death) by Simon and Schuster, not exactly a small-time vanity press.
“…He lives near Jonah’s Ridge, on a mountaintop in Northern Alabama, where he continues to work on the crew of County Garbage Truck No. 2, write, and take things as they come, one day at a time.”
From Simon and Schuster to County Garbage Truck No. 2. Whether County Garbage Truck No. 2 is literal truth or a metaphor for something else, it’s an interesting journey to ponder nonetheless, isn’t it? A collection of Middleton’s unpublished writings will be published later this year. I’m looking forward to it.