Monday, August 15, 2016

Love and Other Ways of Dying: Essays by Michael Paterniti

Mike Paterniti is slyly profound. It is hard to pick a favorite among these essays, and it gets harder the more distance one gets from reading them. They stay around like a seed planted. They grow. It is easy to underestimate Paterniti because his writing voice is self-deprecating and meant to be goofily funny. But a couple of essays in this nonfiction collection prove his bonafides as someone who knows what seeing is, what wonder is. These essays range the world, and though early on I’d picked one or two I thought showcased his talent, two near the end of the collection spoke to me most directly. Ask me again in a week and I will choose a different set.

A GR friend pointed to this title, and his enthusiastic review made me want to see what he saw. The two essays David points to in his review, “Eating Jack Hooker’s Cow” and “Driving Mr. Albert,” are two I wish all the pundits and newscasters had read before the presidential campaign started in the U.S. Paterniti tells of warring motels along an ignored stretch of road in Kansas, one motel owned by the whites, and two on either side of that owned by the yellows. It is a transcendent piece of writing because both sides are understandable in their resentments and there seems no solution in sight unless they get to know one another to see what suffering is.

In his review David points to that bit in “Driving Mr. Albert,” a horrible and ghastly story about driving across country with Einstein’s brain in the car trunk, where Paterniti points out “Frankly, out in America, you get the feeling that America is dying.” There is a stench of formaldehyde in his words throughout which makes one want to wretch, and nothing he writes along the way makes it better. It is a kind of grotesquerie but we cannot pull away. This man went and witnessed and we can just say, “how about that?”

One essay—I want to say story because it reads so much like fiction—that stood out for me was “The Suicide Catcher,” set in Nanjing, China. A man takes it upon himself to try and keep people from jumping to their deaths along a stretch of bridge over the Yangtze River. Paterniti flew to Nanjing to meet Mr. Chen:
"He had a paunch, blackened teeth, and the raspy cough of an avid smoker—and he never stopped watching, even when he allowed himself a cigarette, smoking a cheap brand named after the city itself. He wore a baseball cap with a brim that poked out like an oversized duck’s bill, like the Cyrano of duck bills, the crown of which read They spy on you."
The piece is mesmerizing. Paterniti caught that “China feel” precisely, down to the eight-table local restaurant near the bridge, the walls of which held side-by-side posters of Buddha and liquor ads, and the cloudy glasses of which held beer or grain alcohol that Mr. Chen slammed down with a greedy satisfaction and pride. Paterniti caught the feel of suicide-catching, too, as he stood without Mr. Chen on the bridge later. A man, boozed to the gills, decided he could no longer take the pressure of caring for a sick relative and his family as well. He very nearly succeeded in rolling himself over the balustrade…

“Never Forget” made me shake with fear and brought me to tears. For the first time since our presidential campaign started this time I realized that we human beings have many documented cases—here is another one—of mass delusion and slaughter of fellow humans. It can happen again. It makes no sense, but no matter how remote it seems, we must be vigilant. In this essay the author is in Cambodia with his wife and child. He walks in the park with his son who clutched him “like a snake-spooked chimpanzee,” while everyone smiles and points at them. Everyone smiles so consistently he starts to get paranoid. “Why is everyone smiling?” he wonders. “Was the joke on me?…Or are they smiling because they can?” Chum Mey, a survivor of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, smiles too, though we may never understand how.
"In the first spasm of violence, everyone wearing glasses was killed. Everyone who spoke a foreign language was killed. Everyone with a university education was killed. Word was sent to expats living abroad to come home and join the new Cambodia; when a thousand or so arrived on special flights from Beijing, they were killed. Monks, so revered in Cambodian society and long the voice of conscience there, were killed. Lawyers, doctors, and diplomats were killed. Bureaucrats, soldiers, and policemen, even factory workers (Who in the minds of the Khmer Rouge were equivalent to industrialization itself), were killed."
I am not equating what is happening here with what has happened elsewhere. I am merely pointing out that people can be led to madness. Dystopia has its roots in that fear. In fiction it can be thrilling. In real life it is unqualified horror. Paterniti ended up returning to Cambodia for the trials which had dragged on so very long that everyone on both sides of the case were dying before sentencing. Chum Mey was there, smiling. Paterniti was strong to witness this episode in history, and brave.

It may be worth pointing out that this type of nonfiction storytelling is kind of an unusual genre. Or is it? I mean, it is not journalism exactly. Where does a quirky, interested, interesting voice writing nonfiction fit in the canon unless one is telling news? He writes magazine pieces for GQ. But this is still an unusual category: not travel writing or memoir-writing or straight journalism. The author barely appears in these pieces except for playing straight man or adding an occasional editorial comment or two. It is more like the pieces published in The New Yorker, I guess. Anyway, if someone else were as quirky and observant as Paterniti and could write as well, they might find an audience. My guess is that Paterniti would say, “No, don’t. It ain’t that easy…” But he’d say it with a smile.

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