Books

Paul Crenshaw's 'This One Will Hurt You' Will, Indeed

Paul Crenshaw's This One Will Hurt You, a PopMatters' Pick, is powerful essay collection about life, loss, faith, and natural (and man-made) violence in rural America.

This One Will Hurt You
Paul Crenshaw

Mad Creek Books / Ohio State University Press

Mar 2019

Other

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.

9
Music
Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists

If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by the quality readership of PopMatters.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Books
Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Film
Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Film

The Road to Murder in Love and War: Three Films from Claude Chabrol

The character's in Claude Chabrol's The Third Lover, Line of Demarcation, and The Champagne Murders are obsessively doubled and mirrored, reflecting and refracting their hunger for sex, love, money, and power.

Film

'Memento' Is the Movie of the Attention Economy

We are afraid of time, and so like Leonard in Memento, we kill it, compulsively and indiscriminately.

Film

What Lurks Beneath: 'Jaws' and Political Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

Boris Johnson admires the Mayor in Spielberg's Jaws. Remember him? He was the guy who wouldn't close the beaches -- and sacrifice that revenue source -- during a public crisis.

Recent
Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Music

Lilly Hiatt - "Some Kind of Drug" (Singles Going Steady)

Lilly Hiatt sings about a different kind of love on "Some Kind of Drug". Hers is for a city and the impact gentrification has had its soul.

Music

There's Never Enough Time for Folk Music's James Elkington

The sometimes Wilco and Richard Thompson sideman, in-demand producer, and songwriter, James Elkington, muses on why it's taking longer than he expects to achieve more in a week than most of us get done in a lifetime.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.