There’s a precarious balancing act many personal essayists undertake when shaping their work. Some of the finished products are so finely tuned and crafted that the personal connection is lost. These essays are the literary equivalent of artisan coffee or beer. The ingredients are all included, distilled through proper machines. They are rich and expensive and they leave the customer feeling full, but not fully satisfied. Indeed, the smooth edges and shiny surfaces of many personal essays under the large umbrella of “creative non-fiction” is enough to render the reader numb. These efforts, and the writers behind them, are noble and heartfelt. Unfortunately, the similarity in theme and execution is enough to render them indistinguishable from each other.
Paul Crenshaw’s This One Will Hurt You is a strong exception to that rule. It’s a stunning, beautiful meditation on life in rural America. It’s about understanding and accepting painful memories, about drawing from the dark times not to exploit them so much as to fully accept that such things happened and we passed through them and came out OK.
In “After the Ice”, A nephew is brutally killed at the hands of the boy’s stepfather. The stark winter landscape of a typical Arkansas winter is balanced within the fragile nature of memory. Crenshaw reflects on the importance of work by writers Denis Johnson and Flannery O’Connor. In “Web”, Crenshaw remembers his great uncle Paul, for whom he was named, “The elder men of my life never spoke of pain…” It’s a brief whisper of an essay that focuses on features of the body, injuries. Uncle Paul had burned his hand in a work accident and surgeries left him with scars that created webs between his fingers. In the final paragraph, Crenshaw writes of the night his uncle died:
“….I drank too much at my computer trying to write him back to life… I put my hands over my eyes, and saw through the sunlight the thin web of veins in my fingers, the blood beating toward my heart.”
“The Bear”, another small jewel of an essay, pays tribute to his grandmother and her seemingly unspeakable early life of violence and heartbreak. In “Palm Sunday”, a small and tender tribute to his grandfather, Crenshaw writes of funeral services and traditions “…that the words we recite rarely matter…” Crenshaw demonstrates in both essays a remarkable ability to distill a lifetime in just a few pages. “The Bear” is about a literal lifetime, while “Palm Sunday” crystallizes experiences at his grandfather’s funeral service. Crenshaw renders these universally remembered experiences vivid.
“The Giving of Food” is another tribute to his grandmother, and here Crenshaw takes his time to build a story of producing and consuming meals. “Our language is stuffed with food,” he writes. “Stories of food illuminate some of our greatest Biblical lessons.” His grandmother had worked for 30 years in a cafeteria and the reader clearly understands the role of food in her life. Crenshaw writes of Steinbeck’s Joad family and connects old Ma Joad with “…a grandmother who refuses to let her family go hungry…” It’s an essay of active verbs: watering, raking, working. Crenshaw can’t imagine her as a child and he doesn’t try. Instead, he gives her the last word and we leave Grandma in the kitchen: ” ‘Here,” she says… ‘I only wish there was more.’ “
“Cold” tells of childhood times. “It seems that the house was always cold… We weren’t allowed to build a fire.” Crenshaw writes about his stepfather, whose head was too big and voice too deep. He tries to connect with his stepfather while searching for wood, but his brother remains distant. In an instant, while Paul and his brother are stacking wood with their stepfather, things change: “One moment I was stacking wood, or splitting it… The next… all the cracks… of our inner lives had come to the surface and split apart.” It’s a longer essay about repressed rage finally realized, and forgiveness after the passing of many years, and the end results are truly haunting.
Two essays in this collection, “A brief and selected history of man, defined by a few of the walls he has built”, and “Choke” seem to be working in different venues from the others. They are studious and academic without a trace of pedantry. In the former, we go from cradles to cribs to indoors to tombs. There are walls in the Word, the Bible, the fall of Rome and the finality of wars. Crenshaw brings us through these thoughts in various sections and in the end he brings us to “Small Places” and what they mean to us:
“As we grow older we search for basements or workshops or hobby rooms… The Bible describes Heaven as a city of gold… The walls of the city have twelve foundations, and they are as high as the city is long, which makes me wonder what needs to be kept out.”
In the latter, Crenshaw writes about the unreliability of memory, about the fate of a friend, and along the way from beginning to end he welcomes Denis Johnson’s 1999 film, Jesus’ Son and work by Flannery O’Connor, Poe, Faulkner, and Shakespeare. “A warning,” he writes, “you will feel like I have lied.” Crenshaw dances around the sad topic of his friend Chris by reflecting on the purpose of writing:
“‘Write down the reasons you are telling this story,’ I say to my students, ‘and see what’s at stake.'”
He continues: “I also tell my students the personal essay is… about stories, and how we tell them. But it’s also about memory, and what we might have done.”
“Girl on the Third Floor” also works within a sort of hybrid realm of personal essay and historical research. Crenshaw’s mother had worked at the Nyberg building, a local landmark in Arkansas. It stands “among the surrounding pine trees like an undiscovered city or an old monument to forgotten gods.” It’s a long shuttered tuberculosis sanatorium containing what some consider to be a ghost (a seven-year-old girl) roaming the empty halls. Consider how he compares the feeling of emptiness here to the emptiness of his own family house:
“There’s a feeling an empty house has. Ours seemed to reverberate with space as we walked through that first time… Alien, as if the ghosts of the last tenants still hovered there… Some days it seemed I did nothing but sit in my room.”
Fundamentalist religion plays a large role in two essays: “Of Little Faith” and “Where we are going”. The former is a short article that packs a large punch. “This was the rural South,” he writes, “the thick strap of the Bible Belt, near the buckle.” Mrs. Butler, the fundamentalist fifth grade teacher, warns the children of everything, including wrist watches and primary colors. Crenshaw ends this extended portrait of the place, time, and teacher with forgiveness, and it’s a feeling that lingers in the latter essay. Again, at just two pages, here’s an essay that could have been little more than a negligent whisper, but the reach of time it covers is admirable. Here Crenshaw writes about goodness and sinning: “Is it enough to not do the bad things, or does one have to do some of the good?” It features another end for another teacher, this time with a religious perspective, but the feeling is decidedly different.
Crenshaw writes beautifully of his childhood connection with literature in “The Wild Thing with People Feet was my favorite”. Again, it’s an enormous reach he covers when writing about Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are which (as he notes) only features 339 words. He and his brother connected with the book. “When my parent’s marriage fell apart they became like wild things themselves…” His children enjoyed having the book read to them when younger, but that’s changed. Time moves on. In “My Possum problem, and how it finally ended”, the reader might be reminded of a James Thurber story or a Jean Shepherd monologue where everything goes hilariously wrong. One of Crenshaw’s daughters returns, beautifully, in “Lightning and Thunder”. He writes of the nature of pictures:
“A picture has parameters. It has edges, no matter how far out you pull the focus… You can arrange them in rows, force some semblance of order… Not so memory. Or not always, anyway.”
The land from which Crenshaw draws inspiration and to which he is clearly indebted is deadly in “Storm Country”. He writes: “I know the sound of storms, the low growl of thunder that means storms in the distance…” Everything is peaceful and violent at the same time as they gravitate towards and run from the mighty power of tornadoes. In “The Night before Christmas” we see the devastation meth has made upon the people and fabric of his childhood community. There’s no coming back from the shuttered houses and lost promises. “Still, the snow erases the past, negates the years of neglect around the windows of the houses, makes everything fine again…”
The opening and closing essays in this collection, “After the Ice” and “This One Will Hurt You”, are arguably the strongest. In the former, Crenshaw tried to remember his slain nephew, Keith: “I wish I were more forgiving,” he writes. “I wish the world made more sense sometimes.” It’s an essay about reconstructing the image of a murdered nephew and holding on to the here and now for the sake of those still living. In the latter, the reader is treated to an essay crisp, vivid, and real, with echoes of the best Raymond Carver or Ernest Hemingway short stories. Friends are gathered on a porch, drinking beer, enjoying a peaceful environment when the primal violence of natural selection plays itself out: “And now you listen to me,” he writes, “because I want you to know what I did…” Sometimes in the backwoods and dirt roads of rural America, witnessing and playing out death is unavoidable.
All 18 of the essays in this volume, including “Hide-And-Seek”, weave themselves into a world where the sadness of repressed family anger is forgiven through the grace of a beautiful essay. But they’re not all easy — none of them are bland and comfortable and non-threatening. “We are shameful creatures scared of death,” he writes near the end of the title essay.
Each entry in this book delivers on the promise of its title. This one will hurt, the next one will support, and yet another will challenge. No matter which drink you choose from this case, you’ll be surprised by its staying power.