By DeWitt Henry ’63. Granada Hills, Calif.: Red Hen Press, 2008. 200 pp. $23 paperback.
Reviewed by Rand Richards Cooper ’80
In Safe Suicide, the Boston-based novelist, professor and editor DeWitt Henry has collected his autobiographical essays first published in literary journals such as The Iowa Review and The Harvard Review. With topics ranging from “Innocents Abroad” to “Gym Jerks,” this loosely knit memoir offers vignettes and reflections interspersed among longer narratives—puzzle pieces that gradually reveal the shape of a writer and teacher’s life.
Safe Suicide will appeal to those interested in the American literary scene of the past four decades. Henry includes a history of Ploughshares, the influential journal he co-founded in 1970. Ploughshares took its name from the Plough & Stars, an Irish pub in Cambridge, Mass., the haunt of novelists, poets and journalists (and a few just plain drinkers). Several early contributors to Ploughshares make appearances in Henry’s book, including Andre Dubus, Russell Banks, Tim O’Brien and, most of all, Richard Yates, the notoriously troubled novelist whom Henry helps through a breakdown triggered by a drinking binge after a dismissive New York Times review.
The lengthier essays in Safe Suicide take up themes of family, which Henry engages with attractive candor. He evokes his Cold War childhood with a mordant sense of something askew, both at home and in the larger society. (A favorite toy “was a model of a B-52 that released an atomic bomb when I pushed a button on top.”)
In “Memoir of My Father,” he paints a dark portrait of an overweight and alcoholic man, a chain smoker, stricken with emphysema, who passed his evenings sitting corpselike in the living room, “perpetually brooding, silent and withdrawn … sulking and remote and demoted from any family authority, except as ultimate punisher.” The son’s resentment and aversion dovetail with his mother’s marital disappointments, joining the two in a kind of emotional collusion. “I never want to be like Dad,” the 12-year-old Henry confides as his mother drives him home from school. “I know I’ll be a good father. Because I’ll know how not to be.”
“Arrivals” is a bittersweet retrospective on the author’s young adulthood. Henry recounts how, after graduating from Amherst, he went on to grad school at Harvard and then to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, “accumulating draft deferments,” he writes dryly, “until I reached the draft-free age of twenty-six.” He portrays himself as a young man racked by doubts, hesitations and ambivalence: about his talent as a writer; about making money; about getting “trapped” in marriage and moving to the suburbs; and, above all, about balancing his aspirations with those of his wife, who is eager for children and impatient with the couple’s stubborn financial insecurity. Eventually, Richard Yates tells Henry to buck up and think about his wife instead of himself. Henry does, and at the birth in 1977 of his daughter, Ruth, finds himself “astonished at how natural and possible parenting was; that we were coping; that we were doing the right thing.”
Throughout these essays, Henry scours his experiences for metaphors, literary tie-ins and life lessons. Describing bungee-jumping out West, he quotes Jonathan Edwards on what it is like to “hang by a slender thread … over the pit of hell.”
Many essays center on life with his two children: the death of his 10-year-old son’s best friend; his daughter’s first art show; the comic perils of refilling an inkjet cartridge from a bargain refill kit, in order to teach his son “lessons in economy and perseverance.” These tales are often self-deprecating and ruefully funny. When he hears 16-year-old Ruth downstairs with her boyfriend late one night, he envisions “some crazed orgy,” barges downstairs to find them making out on the couch—and blurts out at them, “With freedom goes responsibility!” The boyhood vow to his mother notwithstanding, Henry discovers that knowing how not to be a good father turns out to provide no guarantee of actually becoming one. With equal parts earnestness and humor, Safe Suicide testifies to the difficulty of negotiating fatherhood without a roadmap.
As a tour guide through his own life, Henry proves lucid and companionable. Now and then an unexpected darkness surfaces, as when he recalls his despair at the repeated rejections, over many years, of the novel manuscript whose publication he desperately hoped would validate his ambitions. “[D]riven by grief and anger,” he writes, “I would have the impulse to abandon everything.” But he doesn’t, and his deepest fears are not realized. His novel finally gets published (and wins prizes); his children grow up into solid citizens.
Both by temperament and experience, Henry exemplifies John Updike’s description of a writer determined “to transcribe middleness with all its grits, bumps and anonymities, in its fullness of satisfaction and mystery.” In Safe Suicide, Henry looks back at his life and acknowledges this middleness with a Beckett-like observation whose tone lies somewhere between acceptance and resignation: “Life went on,” he writes, “as life does.”
Cooper, a former visiting writer at Amherst, writes a column about fatherhood, Dad on a Lark, at Wondertime.com.