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

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


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.