A marine biologist takes a look at human life, his own foremost
Much more than its seemingly nonsensical title, the subtitle of Stephen Spotte’s The Smoking Horse: A Memoir in Pieces clues the reader into what he or she will encounter in the work—namely a disjointed, often rambling meditation on the footloose and bohemian youth of its author, who is now a scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida. The central, if never quite articulated, premise of the memoir is the unlikelihood of Spotte’s current profession and life as scientist—with its requirements of intellectual rigor, careful study, and professional responsibility—and the general dissolution that characterized his teenage years and twenties.
Yet, whatever its pretensions to idiosyncracy, Spotte’s memoir begins and progresses in a fairly conventional fashion; it starts off, for example, by recounting Spotte’s youth in a Virginia coal camp where the tedium and hardship of life in the utter dregs of American industrial economy led to an intensified version of adolescent acting up—drinking, reckless driving, and so on. For his part, Spotte participated in more than his fair share of riotousness, at one point wrecking the family car. The only indication of Spotte’s future vocation is his enthusiasm for collecting crawfish and other creatures in the dirty stream that runs through the settlement.
In the years that follow his childhood and adolescence, Spotte follows a similarly irresponsible course—attending college off and on, working a string of going nowhere jobs (dishwasher, lifeguard, crewmember on a boat) all in the company of similarly down and out types. During this time, Spotte, inspired by his reading of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and other works by Beat authors, aspires to be a writer and haunts the coffee shops and jazz clubs of various cities searching for a mixture of inspiration and sublime truth. He never finds it—or if he does he never lets on as much to the reader.
Instead, we are treated to descriptions of the various grungy digs, fractured relationships, and drinking and drug use by which Spotte and friends mark time. It is only in his late 20s that Spotte finds employment at a public aquarium in the Niagara Falls area and starts on the road to what will become his life’s work and passion. That said, the memoir does not end tidily. Rather, at its conclusion we are left with a worn-out Spotte drinking in a Mexican bar admiring the local women in an attempt to escape and / or come to terms with his wrecked marriage.
So what do the meanderings and tribulations, encounters and episodes, Spotte recounts add up to in the end? Frankly, not very much. This is so for several reasons. First, it is never clear why Spotte’s story is particularly remarkable or interesting. His life is not exactly a model of normality but oddness does not equal interestingness. Indeed, there is little in The Smoking Horse to suggest that Spotte himself can offer a real reason to read his story. Yes, he describes certain individuals, certain scenes, certain events with some detail (and sometimes with effective prose) but nearly always with a tone and sentiment that suggests that cliché of high school year book sign-offs: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” What to make of it, who knows?
This is not to suggest that memoirs must or should be didactic. The best reflect on a life in such a way as to let the reader discern for him or herself what wisdom might be born of and taken away from one individual’s experience in the world. At the same time, a compelling memoir will at least suggest that the writer has learned something along the way, maybe not any essential truths but at least something worth sharing with others. Spotte offers very little of this and the memoir vacillates somewhere between bemusement at and narcissistic celebration of his wild and crazy younger self.
This might be fine—or at least palatable—if Spotte’s younger self didn’t so often come across as a complete jerk. The Smoking Horse is, for example, littered with sexism—there is little indication that women are anything more than cursory gratifications of a raging libido—that may reflect that larger culture in which Spotte’s perambulations take place, essentially spanning the early ‘60s to early ‘70s, but hardly excuse it. Toward the end of the work it becomes clear that Spotte has fathered two children in separate relationships, but other than passing mentions, there is little indication that these children amount to much in his understanding of himself or the world around him. They are simply props in Spotte’s story of self-absorption, bit players in a larger drama the significance of which is never really clear.