Cheryl Strayed: Wild

It was not so much a call from the mountains as a view from the gutter that led Cheryl Strayed to embark on a three-month, 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail.

After the death of her beloved mother and the fraying of her once close-knit family, Strayed had begun a downward spiral in her life that included serial adultery, heroin addiction, and divorce – all by the time she was 26 years old.

Like most rash pronouncements made from the depths of despair, Strayed’s decision to get her life together by hiking a trail that runs along contiguous mountain ranges from Southern California through Oregon and Washington was utterly preposterous: although she had helped tame a plot of land in the Minnesota north woods as an adolescent with her family, and she had camped a bit, she had never once strapped on a backpack and slept alone in the wilderness.

As you can imagine, Strayed made more than a few missteps along her trek.

Strayed tells the story of her momentous hike in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, out this month from Knopf, and it’s Strayed’s unflinching portrayal of her many monumental blunders – both on and off the trail – that makes Wild such a courageous and captivating memoir.

Strayed, a well-respected magazine writer who is also the author of the novel Torch (2006) as well as the popular “Dear Sugar” columnist for The Rumpus, waited nearly 20 years to write her hiking memoir – and the result is an artfully-rendered narrative that not only amusingly retraces her steps along the PCT, but also skillfully assimilates significant moments from her pre-trail life.

Strayed was 22 years old when her dauntless mother, a woman whose love was “full-throated and all-encompassing and unadorned,” was diagnosed with lung cancer. Strayed’s mother, a single mom who had left Strayed’s abusive, biological father when the children were young, was the kind of woman who would entertain her kids with sugar-water spiked with food coloring, who scraped her pennies together to buy a beloved horse, and who (with a second husband) purchased a plot of rural land in Minnesota and brought her kids to help build a house on it. “It was only after her death that I realized who she was: the apparently magical force at the center of our family who’d kept us all invisibly spinning in the powerful orbit around her.”

Strayed’s mother died less than two months after being diagnosed, and Strayed was inconsolable — “I howled and howled and howled, rooting my face into her body like an animal.”

For Strayed, the loss sent her life into a tailspin, and she began to cheat on her sweet, faithful husband, Paul, whom she still loved. Strayed’s sexual “straying” amounted to more than just a few casual affairs – one could probably call it a full-blown (pardon the pun) sex addiction. “It seemed to me the way it must feel to people who cut themselves on purpose. . . . I was trying to heal. Trying to get the bad out of my system so I could be good again.” During one five-day bender that included three different men, she had sex with a massage therapist who gave her a piece of banana cream pie and a free massage. (Not to be flip, but one wonders how Strayed received so many offers of sex. For her solo hike on the PCT, she stowed eleven condoms in her pack. I won’t say if she used them).

After revealing her infidelity to Paul (which ended their marriage), she took off from their home in Minneapolis for Portland, hoping to leave her troubles behind. Instead, she found a punk-haired young lover who got her pregnant and addicted to heroin. In the mornings, she sobbed over her squalid surroundings, but in the afternoons, she returned from waitressing with a wad of cash for more drugs.

Strayed was rescued, mercifully, by the heroic Paul, who drove her out of Portland and back to Minneapolis. Sobbing, one day, over the “sick mire” she had made of her life, Strayed suddenly remembered a book she had recently noticed on a store shelf – The Pacific Coast Trail, Volume I: California. “The thought of the photograph of a boulder-strewn lake surrounded by rocky crags and blue sky on its cover seemed to break me open, frank as a fist to the face.” Strayed began to see hiking the California-Oregon-Washington portion of the PCT (which actually runs from Mexico to Canada) as a way to save her soul.

For the next few months, Strayed soberly prepared for her journey: “I got an abortion and learned how to make dehydrated tuna flakes and turkey jerky and took a refresher course on basic first aid and practiced using my water purifier in my kitchen sink. I had to change. I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning. Not into a different person, but back to the person I used to be – strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good. And the PCT would make me that way. There, I’d walk and think about my entire life. I’d find my strength again, far from everything that had ever made my life ridiculous.”

In short order, up on the trail, Strayed found herself ridiculous again – her pack (which she began calling “Monster”) was so ludicrously overweight she could barely lift it. At one point, Strayed watched one of her (too small) hiking boots sail over a cliff into oblivion. And one night, after camping too close to a reservoir, she woke up covered with tiny frogs.

Strayed’s memoir works simply because she is such a charming travel companion. Even hiking solo on the PCT she manages to befriend dozens of other hikers who have read about her on the trail’s register books, and who begin to refer to her as the “Queen of the PCT.”

What must have been so endearing for those she met along the trail – and what remains so relatable for readers — is Strayed’s humble ability to find herself absurd. As with most memoirs of floundering, we are delighted because we have been there — we recognize ourselves in that lost woman in the woods, and we are thankful to have her chart of the wilderness.

–ww

Cheryl Strayed will speak with L.A. Times columnist Meghan Daum at a Zocalo Public Square event at MOCA on Wednesday, Apr. 4 at 7:30.
Advertisements

Dan Chaon: Stay Awake

Imagine watching a car wreck, over and over again, in slow motion.

Such is the nightmare ensconced in Dan Chaon’s perturbing new collection out this month, Stay Awake (Ballantine).

Violence looms in each of the stories, buzzing up to the surface along with the repressed memories that keep Chaon’s (predominantly male) protagonists on the brink of sanity. Cars wreak the most havoc, continually tumbling into the darkness and crumpling the bodies of their careless drivers. But Chaon finds other methods of maiming his characters as well — fingers are repeatedly severed, a drunken girl falls out of a tree. And no one sleeps.

In the opening story, “The Bees,” a young boy’s night terrors escalate just as his father’s horrific, hidden history returns like the tide. The father, Gene, a former alcoholic, spent years terrorizing a previous wife and child before finally abandoning them in a drunken rage that ended in a car wreck. Gene’s new wife, Karen, doesn’t know the extent of the hideousness Gene inflicted on his ex- family, but Gene’s secrets threaten to destroy them all.

Throughout, Chaon meditates on the desire to escape death: “even when our death is imminent, we carry the image of ourselves moving forward, alive, into the future.” Hence, all the car trouble – autos are like an extension of the body, their forward movement a metaphor for our desire to continue to be propelled forward, even as we’re dying.

The primary method of propelling yourself into the future, of course, is by having children. “You want a child because it is a link in the bridge that you are building between the past and the future, a cantilever that holds you, so that you are not alone.” Chaon’s stories explore our relentless and reckless desire for procreation; they also turn the spotlight on all the suffering children left in their parents’ temerarious paths. Chaon’s parental characters are selfish, blind predators, capable of instilling incredible fear and unspeakable violence – children are taken on terrifying roller coaster rides, or left in abandoned houses, or worse.

In “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted,” college-dropout Brandon continues to live at his parents’ house even after his parents commit suicide in their bedroom. In “I Wake Up,” a couple adopts a foster child, Robbie, after their own child has died. Robbie’s biological sister, Cassie, then begins prompting Robbie to remember their biological mother’s heinous acts.

Chaon is the author of the novels Await Your Reply (2009) and You Remind Me of Me (2004). In Stay Awake, he delivers the kind of short story mastery he showed in Among the Missing (2001), a finalist for a National Book Award.

If you have children of your own, you will read Stay Awake at night with one eye on their bedrooms. You will wait anxiously as each story delivers up its deliciously unnerving morsel of trepidation. Then you will creep into your children’s rooms and – against all reason – promise to keep them safe.

-ww

Dan Chaon will speak at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, April 21-22 at USC.

Shalom Auslander: Hope: A Tragedy

Too soon?

When is it possible, really, to write a comedic mash-up of Anne Frank?

Shalom Auslander is pushing the envelope.

In Auslander’s debut novel, Hope: A Tragedy (Riverhead), out this month, a hero named Solomon Kugel has recently moved with his wife, child, and kvetching mother into a farmhouse in upstate New York. Hearing tapping in the attic one night, Kugel ascends to investigate, expecting to find mice droppings. Instead, Kugel finds a decrepit old woman who claims to be Anne Frank, slithering behind a wall of boxes, noshing on vermin, and tapping out her next book on a computer.

Rodent shit, it turns out, would have been a preferable discovery for Kugel.

Auslander’s Anne Frank is an old shrew who eschews sentimentality and obsesses about her status as a writer. “Blow me,” she says to Kugel when he attempts to bond by disclosing he had relatives who died in Auschwitz. In Auslander’s version, Anne Frank survived the Holocaust but was advised to “stay dead” by her publisher because it would be better for book sales. She has lived in attics ever since the war, and Kugel unknowingly inherited her when he bought the farmhouse.

Kugel is reluctant to tell his live-in mother about Anne Frank’s presence in their attic. Kugel’s mother luxuriates in the thought of her own death, and is maniacally fixated on the Holocaust (even though she grew up in Brooklyn and summered in the Catskills). When Kugel spills the beans about Anne Frank, you can only imagine the naches his mother gets from discovering that the premier victim (“Miss Holocaust, 1945,” as Auslander’s Anne Frank facetiously calls herself) is living under the same roof.

Auslander’s brand of Jewish humor can be deliciously spot-on (Anne Frank throws a loaf of Ezekial bread at Kugel’s head because she had asked him to bring her matzoh) and also wildly offensive (if Anne Frank were to leave, Kugel imagines referring to his attic as, “One hundred percent Frankless. Now with Less Genocide.”)

In part, Auslander is skewering the Jewish tradition of sanctifying suffering — Kugel calls Passover the “Misery Olympics,” and Auslander’s Anne Frank quips, a bit glibly, “I think never forgetting the Holocaust is not the same things as never shutting up about it.” While this may seem a bit flippant, Auslander’s larger theme — what it means to live (and to write) under the burden of Jewish history – is anything but facile. For every Jewish writer, Auslander suggests, Anne Frank is the “madwoman in the attic” (à la Jane Eyre’s Bertha, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have famously explained) – a figure whose awful, insane, and incendiary truths must be confronted before one can get on with the business of writing.

Auslander is the author of the short story collection Beware of God (2005) and the memoir Foreskin’s Lament (2007). Hope: A Tragedy has been thoughtfully reviewed elsewhere recently (L.A. Times, New York Times), and the words “Philip Roth” and “heir to” have been written together more than occasionally in reference to Hope‘s author.

And yet, if comedy equals tragedy plus time, how many epochs must pass before the following scene can be written?: On a tourist trip to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Kugel’s mother is disappointed to find the gas chambers were destroyed at the end of the war — “Are there ovens at least?” she asks, in search of some kind of shrine to satisfy her demented obsession, “The trip shouldn’t be a total waste?”

Throughout the novel, Kugel keeps a notebook of words he hopes he will have the presence of mind to utter just before his death. Among the “Last Words” he considers: “Fuck all of you motherfuckers,” and – after finding a Holocaust survivor instead of mouse crap in his attic — “There’s life for you . . . . Shit everywhere until you need some; then there is none.”

Or, here’s another suggestion:

Too soon?

-ww

Shalom Auslander will speak with Seinfeld producer Peter Mehlman at the Skirball Cultural Center on Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 8 p.m.