Nature vs Nurture

Nature vs Nurture

The nature part…

The Night Swimmers by Peter Rock

Peter Rock is a Portland writer and he teaches at Reed College. I’ve read two of Peter Rock’s books, My Abandonment and The Night Swimmers. In each novel Peter Rock’s protagonists bob and weave and hide from their demons. And they seek sanctuary and balance in nature. In My Abandonment, comfort is taken in the Pacific Northwest woods.  In The Night Swimmers, the characters swim in Lake Michigan for miles under inky black night skies.

The Night Swimmers has been reviewed as an autobiographical novel, but the lines may be blurrier than that. The story starts in the 1990s on Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula. The narrator has recently graduated from college and is beginning his life as a writer (all the hows and whys of his future remain undefined and this troubles him). He is living with his parents on the lakeshore when he meets an intriguing widow at a party. And they have this in common, they both enjoy distance night swimming, but the commonality is discovered later and accidently in a near collision in the dark water. As the summer continues, the narrator and the widow begin to swim across miles of open water together in the dark. The narrator is attracted to the widow in an undefined way but nothing comes of it. The widow, Mrs. Abel, remains mysterious, as unobtainable crushes often do. Then one night during an exceptionally long swim, Mrs. Abel disappears at a strange shoal. The narrator swims back to shore without her after searching frantically. When he is at last able to get out of the water, dawn is breaking.

Twenty years later the narrator is a novelist, married, and a father to two daughters. He is able now to reflect on his summer of Mrs. Abel, their night swims and her disappearance. As the narrator considers that time, he gathers artifacts from his past – photographs, letters, art work and his mind wanders to the painter Charles Burchfield and the psychic photographer Ted Serios.  (Serios reportedly had the ability to take a Polaroid shot of his head and produce photographs of places he had never visited.)

A Charles Burchfield painting.

The narrator weaves together all the gathered detail to help him make sense of that summer -it is after all the tangents that flesh out our storyline, that add color.  In further pursuit of understanding, the narrator returns to Wisconsin with his family to wander through empty cabins and share secret summer spots with his delightfully odd daughters.  And of course, he begins to swim again, late at night.

I loved this novel of remembrance and Peter Rock’s tribute to the watery depths of memory. It’s how I too envision memory, my own secret pool of images and flashes of light.  A body of water both roiling and placid.  When I dream of water, I know I am dreaming my life. And on different nights there can be misshapen grotesque monsters in the water or sunshine on turquoise water.  There are sometimes –often– flotillas of people I love shouting back and forth stories of our shared time and there is outrageous laughter.  Sometimes the water is peopled with those from whom I ran. On a walk today through a reach on Chrystal Springs I looked for spring runs of steelheads and lampreys with an environmental engineer.  I learned about fish and wetlands from him and I also discovered he too envisions his memory like water. And when he dreams of himself, he is water.  I asked if he fished, “no”, he shook his head thoughtfully and, “no” again. He said, “it would be like killing a part of myself”.

My Abandonment is based on a short newspaper article Peter Rock read in The Oregonian. The article told of an adult male and his daughter found living in Forest Park – Portland’s largest wilderness park.  Rock researched the story and then imagined the end. The book was made into a movie in 2018 called, Leave No Trace. Both the book and movie are well worth the time.

Leave No Trace. Ben Foster is stellar in his role. The daugher reminds me of someone we all know.

The nurture part…

The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman.

The Gunners is the name on a mailbox in front of an abandoned house. And it serves as a secret club to six friends growing up in an economically depressed section of Buffalo, New York.

Kauffman has written truth in The Gunners and so like real life, the novel is keen and funny. And sad. It is filled with equal parts of loss and mistakes, grace and love -not unlike most lives. Through all the years the Gunners — Mikey, Lynn, Alice, Sam, and Jimmy hold on to one another. They don’t do it seamlessly, because each has their own shortcomings, and there have been gaps and a few mistakes.

The story starts as the kids randomly find one another and agree to form a club in the abandoned Gunner house. The years pass and their ties loosen. But death brings them together again and they return to Buffalo for a funeral. They reunite at a lake house and discover their feelings for one another haven’t changed, that their ties are true and meaningful. And it’s time to start filing in the blanks…

Kauffman’s writing is clean and it enables her to sidestep gooeyness. She builds individuals with specific vulnerabilities and personalities, you don’t feel sorry for anyone, even though there is tragedy. Reading this book is like taking the hand of a dear childhood friend and heading out for a purposeful stroll.

Other books:

The Immortalists by Chole Benjamin.

What if you were told, as a child, the exact date you would die? Would you live your life differently? The Immortalists is about the four Gold children who on one boring summer vacation day meet with a psychic who has a gift to foretell the exact day on which a person will die. The novel follows each Gold as they set out to live their lives, with their death date fueling many of their choices. This one is about family and destiny and illusions. The novel takes place in San Francisco during the early AIDS epidemic, Las Vegas during the Siegfried and Roy years, New York, and primate labs focused on ageing experiments. I think Chole Benjamin is a bit of a smart-y. You’ll learn a lot if your read this book and I suspect you will enjoy it mightily.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

This book is won.der.ful.  The story centers on quirky Eleanor who is the embodiment of that one person in the office with whom we are all (likely) familiar. Eleanor has only clipped responses for her co-workers, she wears crummy out-of-date clothes, and getting to the point: she is simply an all-around socially clunky oddball. You know workers snigger behind her back and make after-work plans that intentionally leave her out of the fun and bonding (and Eleanor knows it too).

Eleanor’s profound loneliness is carefully revealed to the reader and its shattering. But wait, get this, despite her loneliness the story is also funny because Eleanor is funny. Eleanor’s humor is shared in her internal monologues because Eleanor doesn’t think much of people and talks almost exclusively to herself. Even so, you know something has to change.

And here is how it happens -she of all people falls in love with a local jackass pop singer. Her crush brings Eleanor out of her shell a little but her fantasies are upended when she is persuaded (by a co-worker) to help an old man who has fallen in a crosswalk.  Read it before Reese Witherspoon turns it into another HBO mini-series (not necessarily a bad thing).

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