Sunday, October 1, 2017

Only the Little Bone by David Huddle

Vanity is not the moving force behind all that follows. On the contrary, I am wholly without awareness of self, am without sorrow or desire, nostalgia or greed, am in that state of pure, thoughtless spirit that I later come to understand as aesthetic experience, as I hold my Roy Rogers neckerchief out the car window and watch it fly gorgeously in the wind. I have had to bargain with Ralph for the place beside the door, and I have had to exercise considerable discretion in sticking my hand and arm out the window. My mother's stiff neck prevents her from turning to see what I am doing, and I am sitting behind my grandmother, whose sense of wellbeing is directly proportional to the stillness of her grandsons. 
I took a writing class this summer, and our teacher gave us the last page of this book (which I will share later) on the last day. I got halfway through it, took out my phone, and ordered the book on Amazon. In Only the Little Bone Huddle gives us a slim volume of autobiographical stories that hang gracefully together as a whole, but can also be read as individual pieces. In the foreward, Huddle describes the book as a "final elegy to my childhood," the pieces that helped him move fully into adulthood. Each story is a snapshot of a transition out of boyhood; there is the loss of innocence you would expect from a series of coming of age stories, but Huddle also brings a cinematic sense of detail, slowing down moments to fill pages and launching you back to the summer evenings of your own childhood.

Huddle's father, the taciturn yet thoughtful manager of a factory, is the most interesting character in the whole book. This is my favorite snapshot of him: "My father was a man who had faced a toolshed full of rattlesnakes, had been shot at by union strikers, had taken a knife away from Bernard Seeger at a high-school dance, but around women who came to our house as company, and especially around Susan O'Meara that past week, my father took on the persona of somebody who'd stayed indoors all his life and eaten nothing but cheese sandwiches." This one sentence description captures the mythology and the humanity of a parent so perfectly, and it evokes that period in one's life where the flaws of one's parents start to seep through the veneer, where the incongruencies start to pile up. In many ways, these stories are a grappling with those moments of realization both small and large.

The book reads more or less like a memoir. One story, "Dirge Notes," takes on a slightly different form, and I had trouble fitting it in with the rest of the stories. The story is broken up by section headers and it moves jumps between time periods and storylines without quite enough signposting to keep the reader on board, but all the other stories work together beautifully. The last one shares the book's title and is home to that famous last page. Here, Huddle has returned home as an adult and is remembering the accident that broke "only the little bone" in his leg, leaving him in a cast:
I stand there holding the cast in my hands, reading something somebody in my third-grade class wrote on the side of the knee, and I know that everything that happens is connected to everything else and nothing that happens is without consequence. I am washed by one memory after another like ripples moving backwards to their source. All of a sudden I am no one. Or I am this stranger standing in an old toolshop with memory trying in its quirky way to instruct him. A man came home to visit his parents, a man who got an office and built bookshelves, a man whose grandfather died and who was a soldier for a little while, a boy whose leg was broken by a car and who did not become a basketball or a football player, a boy who stayed a summer with his brother and his cousin inside his family's hard. The moment of my disappearance passes, and I come back to myself. Now, holding this cast in my hand, standing in this one place, I feel like I could remember all of human history. If I put my mind to it. 
These are the kind of moments, tiny and huge, that make up the stories in this book. The same moments that pave our own senses of ourselves and our histories. I love the rhythm of this section; it's a rhythm that comes up again and again in his writing, and it's one that resonates with how my own memory works, in lists and moments and fragments.

Only the Little Bone is out of print, and is somewhat tricky to track down without Amazon's help (I tried to find it in a couple of bookstores for a friend and failed). It's worth the search!

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