Works of art or of literature which are experimental for the very purpose of being experimental are a phenomenon that has been with us for so long that what should at least be fresh has, ironically, become some of the stalest, most predictable stuff around. So much of such “literature” depends upon the self-validating aura of the genre to mask its lack of innate talent - its only purpose is to innovate, no matter how ridiculously. It is getting on for a century since that least philistine of critics, Edith Wharton, who was generously disposed toward and open to all art of real value, dismissed much of that ilk going on around her as nothing more than wearing your shoes on your head.
So it is not only a surprise but a genuine delight to come upon this truly unique book by Joseph Harrington, a poetry critic who is a professor at the University of Kansas and author of “Poetry and the Public.” Of course, this makes it hard to define its form. If something fits into no known category and is really original, then what do you call it?
A moving pastiche of reminiscence and diatribe, of artifact and allusion, its title “Things Come On,” while quite appropriate to an account of the author’s mother’s death from metastatic breast cancer, which happened to be concurrent with the denouement of the Watergate affair, reveals little useful in categorizing it. The subtitle, “An Amneoir,” itself a word the author made up as a conscious hybrid of the oxymoronic dialectic of amnesia and memoir, is more revealing.
For one of the strengths of this strange work is the honesty with which it confronts the unreliability of memory. Mr. Harrington acknowledges that certain memories he has of a development in his mother’s demise coinciding with one in the unfolding of Watergate cannot be true. Yet to him, his memory is convincing, and such is his honesty and his readiness to doubt himself and submit recollection to testing that he succeeds in convincing us of the validity of his experience. And one thing he can and does document: His mother died on the very day President Richard M. Nixon decided to resign - Aug. 8, 1974.
It is very difficult to connect the public and the private, but Mr. Harrington does so, and for him clearly the process of this joining began all those decades ago when he and his mother watched the Watergate hearings and heard all that talk, which echoed and re-echoed back then, of this being a “cancer on the presidency.” And this raises the very real question of what such metaphorical flights can do and even indeed whether they are appropriate. Certainly Mr. Harrington conveys the sense that for people actually dealing with the real thing, such words being bandied about are a very different thing from what they might be for others.
Part of the success of this “amneoir” lies in the way its author can show, through a variety of tones, from the flattest to the sharpest, the anguish he felt as a boy not yet in his teens watching his mother go through her terrible ordeal and his struggle to understand what she must have been feeling. He conveys all the shades of emotion, ranging from pity to the rawest of anger. This leads him even toward blasphemy in the fury of his loss. But having sat perched on his shoulder during his journey through the fire - a loving son helpless before what is ravaging his mother - most readers will, I think, sympathize rather than censure.
Warning: The occasional coarseness in the text of “Things Come On” is not the only part of it that might offend. Put baldly, this is a work more for Nixon haters than Nixon lovers, and it is interesting that Mr. Harrington’s mother was a longtime secretary for that stalwart Democrat, Sen. Albert Gore Sr., no fan of RMN.
Even those mildly well-disposed or respectful of our 37th president might find the equation of him, or even the Watergate scandal, with cancer - John Dean’s celebrated “cancer on the presidency” remark notwithstanding - a bit much. But the link between Nixon and cancer, so much in the air back in those days, seems to have made such a particularly deep impression on this young boy struggling with his own mother’s losing battle with the disease that he may perhaps be pardoned for the excess of his zeal in running, perhaps too eagerly and too far, with this poisonous simile.
It is seldom that a book reviewer comes upon a book so genuinely different from any other as this “amneoir.” That it should also be so very accomplished, so successful in the original row it has chosen to hoe, is an enormous achievement for Mr. Harrington, who deserves high praise for the very difficult task he set for himself and then so movingly bringing it to fruition.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
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