Monday, December 17, 2012


Like a lot of people -- most people, I suspect -- I've spent the better part of the last several days immersed in a tragic story from which I couldn't easily avert my eyes. As you may well imagine, I have a multitude of thoughts about what happened, but I feel as though they are for another time and perhaps another place. After untold hours of refreshing my browser, seeking every raw and fresh nugget I'd hoped, on the most basic level, might draw me closer to grasping some tangible shred of sense out of the chaos, I finally did shut it down, looked away, and found what felt like meaningful ways to pass the time. These were my diversions.

I don't remember how this book first came to my attention -- I must have stumbled upon a review of it somewhere, and I recognized the author's name because I'd read his debut novel, An Underachiever's Diary, shortly after it came out in 1998. I was living in Portland then and still adjusting to the particulars of my life at the time, the most profound of which were these: I worked forty-plus hours a week in an office, I made barely enough to survive on, I had most definitely stalled in my ambition to be a writer, and I lived alone a few blocks away from where my daughter lived with her mother. I say I lived alone, but in truth I shared my narrow apartment with an aging fluffy orange cat I would describe as tremendously needy and occasionally churlish. I was trailing the remnants of four remarkably difficult years then, like a big old American car dragging its muffler and tailpipe down a long road with no service station in sight. One afternoon on my lunch break I ducked into a bookstore in the Old Port and found myself holding this spare little hardcover by a writer I'd never heard of. I think there was a blurb from Ann Beattie, a writer I've always admired, and so, in spite of the fact that I wasn't earning new-hardcover money by any means, I bought it and took it home and read it. I remember that I enjoyed the book, perhaps in part because it was heartening to see someone roughly my age write a book and get it published, but now, almost fifteen years later, I can't say I recall much about it. With the exception of the times I spent with my daughter back then -- commonplace, everyday activities that are nonetheless etched on my mind -- most of what I did and saw in those days is, in my memory, dimly illuminated by the sort of bitter grey-yellow light cast by a low-wattage bulb nearing the end of its filament's life. I was mostly just going through the motions. However, the name Benjamin Anastas stuck with me, and so when I saw he'd written a memoir, and when I learned precisely what form this memoir had taken, I decided I needed to read it.

The title is Too Good to Be True, a reference you'll understand if you read the book. In the briefest of terms, I'll tell you that circumstances and his own failings conspired to make Anastas' life an unsettling and noteworthy mess. With two well received books to his credit, his writing ebbed. At around the same time, he cheated on his fiancee. As their wedding date neared, he sought to unburden himself of the guilt his affair had engendered, and so told his fiancee what he'd done. In spite of the indiscretion (a word I despise, especially in this context, but I use it for economy's sake), she forgives him and they proceed with the wedding. Less than six months later, she has stepped out on him, and she is also, it turns out, pregnant with their child. In the months that follow, Anastas moves out and is, by his account, quite literally immediately replaced by his wife's new man. All of which is terrible, of course, but things get much worse in short order. His writing career now entirely stalled and his employment prospects bleak (as he points out in an interview, the spotty work history of a once full-time writer does not present the sort of resume that screams "Hire this guy!"), he slides deep into debt and, eventually, relative poverty. Against this backdrop, of course, falls the bittersweet reality of part-time fatherhood, rendered, I can assure you, with painful honesty. The book, overall, is a good story and Anastas is an outstanding writer. My one lingering criticism is that he seems to try to claim a peculiar slab of moral high ground after his wife cheated on and then essentially left him. He is at first incredulous that she has not, as she'd assured him before they were married, actually forgiven him: that, to me, is simply naive. As time passes and he is forced to accept this new reality, his bitterness, I would argue, exceeds its limit by giving insufficient weight to the fact that he had, after all, cheated on her first. He acknowledged this fact, I just don't think he was capable of absorbing it in the context of that with which he was left. Whether or not anything would have made a difference to these two people's relationship, the fact remains, it is far easier not to cheat on someone you claim to love than it is to live with the consequences of doing so. And if you do stray, you've relinquished your right to the high ground. Period.

Much of this story, of course, cut pretty close to the bone for me. I've found myself, in my early forties, floundering miserably, broke to the point of impoverishment much of the time, having to shuck and jive my way through more situations than I care to recall, with brief instances of joy separated by long stretches of morbid discomfort. As I mentioned to a friend, it takes little effort on my part to imagine how Benjamin Anastas' shoes would feel on my feet. It's interesting to me, though, that I responded less to his accounts of a brand of poverty I recognize all too well, but instead to the more substantial role we share in common: far-too-infrequent dad. There is unmistakable warmth and joy and affection in the way he talks about the time he spends with his son. In fact, the voice of those scenes is notably different from the rest of the narrative, and I recognize it for what it is: a whisper. The network of invisible strings that holds together these brief, isolated bursts of time with your child is so tenuous, your inclination is to speak of them in hushed tones. I used the word "bittersweet" earlier. I've known no other experience in my life that more starkly crystalizes the essence of that word than Sunday evenings after my daughter returned to her mother's -- to home, it's fair to say, because home is where you live most of the time, and every other place in the world is simply a place you visit. Benjamin Anastas captured that aspect of being the other parent, and if for no other reason than that the book succeeded in my eyes. I recommend.

The other satisfying distraction from my weekend was a movie I'd been meaning to see for years, a film written and directed by a man who happens to own the film rights to a fine book written by my very good friend, a fact that pleases me even more now that I've seen this film. It's called The Lives of Others, and I'm not going to tell you any of the particulars of the story because I don't want to sully even a moment of it for any of you who (wisely) choose to see it. Suffice it to say that it is a perfectly wrought piece of film art, charming and compelling and heartbreaking, beautifully shot, stunningly performed, expertly told. I sat frozen in front of the screen after it ended. Do yourself a favor and see this film. You will not be disappointed.

And so, as you can see, I went far afield from the story that has been on everyone's minds since Friday. I'm glad I did because, of course, when I woke up this morning, that story was still there, as it will be for days and weeks to come. There is no language adequate to the sorrow and confusion and anger we are all left with in the wake of such ruinous madness. Which is precisely why it's important to be reminded that there are places to seek solace, if only for a little while. For me, it was a book and a film. I hope you have found yours, too, or will soon.