Review by Stephen Furlong
Publication Date: June 2017
The last semester of my undergraduate studies I took a risk; I decided to take a class dedicated to memoir. It was a risk in the sense that memoir was nonfiction. Nonfiction was Truth. Capital T Truth. While I have always been fascinated by origin stories there was a layer of vulnerability attached to them. Still, it my last semester, and I went for it. The reading list was expansive and I enjoyed it for the most part, but an essay assigned early on, stripped me of my defenses and has stayed with me to this day. The author was Scott Russell Sanders and the essay was “Under the Influence”.
Its theme, in brief, was a son trying to accept the weight of shame stemming from his father’s alcoholism. Not only that, the essay dealt with the hushed nature of familial shame. Shhh-ame.
Can you hear that silence?
Scott Russell Sanders’ essay articulated a desire that was deeply personal: If he could escape back into his boyhood, and if he could be perfect, perhaps his father would never pick up another drink. The complication of this longing was something I knew entirely too well and, because it wasn’t something I wanted to face then, it became something I’d have to confront eventually. And isn’t that a goal of good creative nonfiction? To show us a reality we, as humans, are destined confront and to show us how others coped with their experience? That’s something I am inclined to believe.
What I do know for certain though is that the essay penetrated my steeled defenses because I found myself reading about familial shame again. I read The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr (Viking Books, 1995) which, literarily speaking, introduced me to this special brand of shame. Though I knew about shame for myself. It was in my bones. It still is some days. Shame, like the cold of winter, is tough to shake, no matter what landscape you might find yourself in. Still, the more I delve into books and write my own stories, the more I am drawn to this theme because I am looking for pieces of maps. Maps of peace.
Hanif Abdurraqib writes in They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio, 2017) that he is “…hoping, mostly, that we all get better at wishing on the things we need, even in darkness.” I have always associated silence with darkness; there are not always words to bring light. So, if that’s true, is lightness speaking? Meghan McClure and Michael Schmeltzer bring to light alcoholism in A Single Throat Opens (Black Lawrence Press, 2017). This light paves way for exploring the darkness, often hushed silence, of addiction.
The sound of crashing liquid against the back of one’s throat.
Alcoholism is a disease of self-deception, mutterings of I’m fine or I can have another. This deception is written clearly in the first line of the book: Begin with a lie. The opening paragraph continues with “Begin with a lie so fluid it dribbles down our chin, makes every listener thirsty.” The book is a study in desire which stems from individuals in the authors’ life desiring another drink and also for the authors to understand the world that surrounds them. However, with alcoholism we learn from the authors: “My father, like fire consumes the thing/that sustains him”. And like a fire, the implication of possibility is uncertain. Kind of reads like a hand that feeds you sort of implication though. Continuing from the book, we learn a little later, there’s still hopefulness: “Every time I’ve let someone know the truth, they have set me free.” In addition to hopefulness, there’s faithfulness and there’s gentleness.
The art of Meghan McClure and Michael Schmeltzer is found within their books’ duplicity, the sense of doubling, paired with the sense of deceit. Of course, there’s the obvious double of the paired authors, but there’s constant wordplay and even allusions to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and AA. One a writer whose claim to fame is a novel on the grand disillusionment of the American Dream—a disillusionment founded on bootlegging no less and one is a fellowship dedicated to help alcoholics “stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.” These allusions chosen carefully by the authors open up multiple interpretations because of their various origins and various ending points.
Speaking of origins, when I knew I wanted to review this book, I began my research by investing in John Berryman, one of the more complicated literary figures of the 20th century. I didn’t want to visit his still-popular Dream Songs but rather his unfinished, at the time of his death and therefore posthumous, novel Recovery which Farrar, Straus, and Giroux put out in 1973. It’s interesting to note that the dust jacket of the book has four pictures of Berryman and in all but the last, Berryman averts his gaze at the camera—the last one, taken in 1972—is the only one Berryman looks at the camera. Berryman was a man who enjoyed hiding himself, claiming most of his truths and Truths were in his poems and on the page. Similarly, Berryman’s last literary work and his only novel, serves as a camera of sorts in its attempt to capture the wretchedness that addiction leaves in its wake.
In the foreword to Recovery, Saul Bellow writes “What he (Berryman) needed for his art had been supplied by his own person, by his mind, his wit. He drew it out of his vital organs, out of his very skin.” I believe the visceral nature of this quote also speaks to McClure and Schmeltzer because their work speaks the truth as they understand their situations and speaks the Truth as they understand their emotions.
At the time that I am finishing this review, “Air” by, at the time of the song’s release, Ben Folds Five is playing in the background. It was in the rather bizarre, not all-the-way-there, 1998 Godzilla. Still like the monster portrayed in the movie, there’s still capacity for crushing. The song reveals Ben Folds seemingly innate ability to trigger emotion and, before refraining the chorus, there’s the song’s crushing line: “Dear, he probably can’t hear you…” In a similar capacity, in A Single Throat Opens, the crushing lines are as follows:
The haunting nature of writing about things that expose us is that trees become hands reaching to keep us in the forest. There will always be birds, I imagine condors, circling above. Since I was a child, condors have always scared me because of the way they wait. They are waiting for the remainder of remains. In a word: flesh. That’s why I admire McClure and Schmeltzer as much as I do; they perpetually produce writing that is flesh. Writing that is still alive.
A Single Throat Opens by Meghan McClure and Michael Schmeltzer is a profound collection that blurs the line of author and human experience. Truth and circumstance. Personal and political. And, as these lines are blurred, I am drawn to this little collection because of its ability to encapsulate these attributes on its way to being a memorable, enduring collection
And, circling back to “Air” by Ben Folds, I can hear their words. They are the reason I come up for air. They are the directive lights showing me which way is up. This little collection of hybrid non-fiction should be sold in cartography stores because it is a map. The legend points towards truth by incorporating Truth and the rawness of healing. That’s why this book will always be in my library. It is the way out of the forest. It is the way towards healing.
About the Reviwer:
Stephen Furlong is a recent graduate with an M.A. in English from Southeast Missouri State University. His poems, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Pine Hills Review, and Yes Poetry, among others. He also had a poem in A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault which was edited by Joanna C. Valente and published by Civil Coping Mechanisms. He can be reached at @StephenJFurlong on Twitter.
If you are interested in submitting your own LitStyle review or would like your book reviewed please contact Kenyatta JP Garcia with an inquiry