The dysfunctional family memoir has had a profitable run since Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life was published in 1989. There’s been Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle, Augusten Burroughs’s Running with Scissors, and many more. During the last 10 years Ben Miller has been working away on his own account of bipolar parents (one manic, one depressed), double-bound youth, and troubled siblings in 1970s Iowa. Compared with the books I’ve mentioned, as well as recent parent-haunted autobiographies by established novelists Andre Dubus III and Richard Russo, River Bend Chronicle sits on a higher shelf.
Miller’s antic mother carries around “Moby-Purse,” a large handbag into which she stuffs free samples, fast food condiments, rags, poems, change, stolen items from hotel maids’ carts, odds, ends, oddities. At 455 stuffed pages, River Bend Chronicle is the Moby-Dick of crazy family memoirs, Melvillian in its packed facts, fascinating characters, stylistic virtuosity, and deep-diving ambition to understand destructive madness.
Lest the comparison to Moby-Dick scare off potential readers, I hasten to add that Miller is as accessible as Karr, Burroughs, and the others—unreserved in his domestic exposures, often humorous in his treatment of eccentric Millers and quirky neighbors, frequently ironic about Ben the boy poet, and even sympathetic to the mother who molested him and to the father who abandoned the family while still present behind his newspaper and cloud of cigarette smoke.
Miller was born in 1963, the first child, a self-described “Fat Boy,” a misfit in grade school but his mother’s favorite. At age 14, Ben decides after years of “inappropriate touching” by his mother to resist her and lose half his 215 pounds. He is encouraged in this de-girth and rebirth by a generous elderly neighbor, Mr. Hickey, whose neat house and moderate life offer Ben a respite from the squalor and hysteria of his own home. Miller’s chapters on Mr. Hickey make compelling a boring man who insists on daily routines that might seem like obsessive compulsive disorder to anyone other than order-seeking Ben.
As a young teenager, Ben finds parental surrogates in a sweetly portrayed writers group of mostly older adults, and writing eventually rescues Ben from his parents and damaged siblings. Writing as salvation is a familiar theme in the dysfunctional genre, but Miller tweaks it by showing how the creative impulse can also lead to the unhappiness of his father the failed novelist and his mother the would-be poet.
Of parents, Philip Larkin famously wrote, “They fuck you up your mum and dad.” True for Miller, but he also knows how his lawless parents (ironically, both attorneys) were scarred, his father David literally by his father who botched an operation on his son’s broken leg, his mother Tommy by her abduction as a child. Miller also sensitively explores how some of his five siblings respond to parental abdication. Elizabeth becomes the grade grinder, Marianna the party girl, and Howard the bully.
In high school Ben manages to periodically escape his haunted household by walking, running, or biking through his hometown of Davenport. The town’s “Curious Glory,” as the subtitle has it, is another of the book’s unexpected pleasures, for the old, decaying “urban Iowa,” like Mr. Hickey, is persuasively celebrated for its “humble perseverance,” its ordinariness and avoidance of the cultural pretensions that afflict his parents. To reinforce this reverse glory of realism, Miller, like W. G. Sebald, sprinkles uncaptioned black and white snapshots of no obvious artistic merit throughout his text.
Miller’s early life may not have been as adventure-filled as some other memoirists’—no firearms discharged (Wolff, Karr), no middle-of-the night family removals (Walls), no zany psychiatrists (Burroughs)—but his book is much riskier. Like Moby-Dick, River Bend Chronicle mixes together narrative and essays, not always in chronological order. After a prologue, the first chapter tells a representative story in the life of the then 15-year-old Ben’s impoverished family, the construction of a Christmas “tree” out of vines and twigs. In the next chapter a 9-year-old Ben fantasizes about a neighbor’s invention of a mail-order ice rink. The following chapter is an anecdotal essay on his sister Marianna and her 8-year-old friend who won a talent contest when Ben was 12. Because the Millers repeat their pathologies, the author gyres around their experience, returning to similar situations—such as failure and success in these first chapters—in different times and in different styles. This circling both anatomizes “junkification” and accumulates its emotional effect on the reader.
The mother in Jeanette Wall’s The Glass Castle, who could be a twin of Miller’s mother, calls herself an “excitement addict.” Where other memoirists might give a page or two to an undramatic situation before rushing on to new excitements, Miller risks devoting 20 or more pages to the seemingly ordinary. Early on he describes his method and motivation for expanding his writing, like “an amoeba oozing between forms, trying to fuse them to create the larger mirror of realities that had overwhelmed a boy, flooded him, made him him. There existed in me a sense that to get one little thing right … I had to pry open my history entire and reexperience the totality of its murk.”
Miller’s third risk is using very little reconstructed—and therefore falsified—dialogue as, for example, Burroughs does so egregiously. Miller captures voices, what he calls the “language contagion” of his parents—the nonsensical word play of his father, the paranoid rants of his mother—and he records the blurted and brutal banalities of his neighbors, but these sounds are effectively folded into Miller’s own sentences and sensibility, part Sherwood Anderson the Midwestern collector of grotesques, part Vladimir Nabokov the foreign cruiser of comic Americana.
These risks and stylistic choices are no literary high-wire act. They are what make River Bend Chronicle an original and profound work of art, one that I know will lodge in my memory long after I forget the higher journalism of the memoirists I’ve mentioned.
The question often asked of mid-life memoirs about fraught youth would seem particularly relevant to a work as dense with specifics as River Bend Chronicle: Can the author possibly have remembered all this? The book’s techniques most resemble the methods of massive and even excessive autobiographical novels about family dysfunction such as William Gass’s The Tunnel and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and uses recursive structure, long, jazz-inspired paragraphs, textured and sonorous sentences, linguistic dexterity, and literary allusiveness. But River Bend Chronicle should be read as a memoir bulked up on aesthetic steroids. Paradoxically, it’s these techniques of art that persuade the reader of the work’s essential truthfulness, if not its every “remembered” detail. Captain Ahab believes that “all visible objects are…but as pasteboard masks,” and I think Miller the memoirist also believes that he must ultimately strike through these objects to the reality beyond.
The only weakness of River Bend Chronicle, aside from its rather clunky subtitle, is its 50-page epilogue, “Deaths in the Family,” which brings Miller’s life up to the present and reports the long-term consequences of separating himself from his parents. When his siblings don’t inform him of his father’s death, recriminations ripple through the family. This epilogue may satisfy memoir readers’ expectation of closure, but, not surprisingly, Miller’s language here loses some of its sensuousness as he compresses into relatively few pages many years of family bickering and score-settling.
“Dollars damn me,” Melville wrote to Hawthorne when working on Moby-Dick, complaining about demands that he produce popular, profitable fiction. Praise Miller for damning dollars and patiently creating a work that should be the gold standard for literary memoirs in the future. And praise Lookout Books, a small press willing to invest in this grand book that no commercial publisher would touch.