DeWitt Henry captures the pulse of his American generation. The drama of SAFE SUICIDE is the writer’s mid-life quest for psychological and spiritual truth. By turns lyrical, quirky, confessional, and experimental in form, Henry’s essays build into an affirming and generous vision. A bungee jump becomes Henry’s central metaphor: “isn’t this life? isn’t this art? We live and trust in our safe suicides.”
As an essay cycle, DeWitt Henry’s Safe Suicide offers a variety of ways of “telling slant”—plumbing the material of a life through topical prompts or meditations.Essays proceed from such questions as “who was the oddest adult in your childhood,” or orbit around key concepts such as free fall or gravity, or around central images such as self-immolation.Memoirs also build to or from salient photographs, taken or never taken; and from dreams.In Henry’s hands, ordinary settings, rituals and events, from filling an ink cartridge to running a marathon, become ground for meditations on such themes as consumerism or aging, and in classic fashion, the aspects of dailiness rise to the status of metaphor.
“As with any flat-out wonderful book, a few words of praise cannot begin to do it justice.But here goes: Safe Suicide is elegantly written, edgy, touching, inventive, surprising in its shifts of style and form, and completely spellbinding from start to finish.Partly memoir, partly a sequence of interlocked essays, this is a book that works its way under your skin and down into your vital organs.It is really, really good.”
--Tim O’Brien, author of THE THINGS THEY CARRIED
Excerpted from DeWitt Henry’s essay On Aging:
Between the ages of 51 and 57, I struggled to run the Boston Marathon each year.
I was encouraged the first time by a younger colleague who had finished it the year before and told me it was an unforgettable experience. I had been running only five-, then ten- mile loops around the Charles River bike path, but I started training day by day, week by week, and discovered that I could go farther and longer. From my home in Watertown, the river as it meanders into Boston is punctuated by a series of bridges. The Harvard bridge marked a 12-mile loop. The B.U. bridge marked a 16, the M.I.T. bridge an 18, and all the way around the Science Museum and back to my house was 25 miles. I trained and trained, the longer runs taking me three hours. My friend told me that the adrenaline of the event, of the crowds, and of the other runners in the marathon would carry me the 26.2-mile distance even if in my longest run before the race I had only reached 18 miles.
I’m not a natural athlete, and certainly not a gifted runner. The goal here wasn’t competition. I took as gospel the sentences from Galloway’s Book of Running: “In your first marathon, don’t worry about time. Just run to finish. Staying on your feet for 26 miles is a feat in itself.” On my long training runs, I would sometimes hit my wall five miles from home, falter to a painful walk, call and ask to be picked up; or once, I actually had to take a bus. I was sweaty and given berth by the other passengers.
The day was chill and overcast, perhaps 45 degrees at late morning. Over the crowd from an elevated, sheltered platform, officials told us the clouds would clear off and that we would have a tailwind. A high school band was playing. Johnny Kelley, the elderly patron saint of the Boston Marathon, made an appearance to cheers and applause and sang his song, “Young at Heart.” The wheelchair entrants lined up and, with a shot of the starter’s pistol and the crowd’s cheer, they were off downhill for their early start. Runners started peeling off whatever disposable layers they had been wearing, trash bags, extra shirts, old jackets, and tossed them to the side. The officials announced 10 minutes to the runners’ start, then five. A TV news helicopter hovered loudly overhead. A fellow runner and acquaintance, Ray, pressed close to the barrier. “Come on,” he told me. “When they start, you just climb over and jump in. Just do what I do.”
Suddenly the loudspeaker barked “They’re off!” Like water through a broken dam, the elite runners spilled. I couldn’t see them. Just the shuffle in front of me, as the press of bodies pushed forward, quickening. There was a mounting cheer from the runners themselves, hats tossed. Ray heaved his ass up on the barrier, swung over one leg, then the other, jumped down. “Good luck! Come on!” he yelled. I did the same, though immediately I lost sight of Ray. I jogged and bobbed, working my way in, keeping pace behind, alongside, and in front of others, all those arms swinging, all those running shoes drumming. I was in a living river and as far ahead as I could see, bobbing heads, colors, human motion flowed. Racers filled the road across, from side to side, and all the way ahead, already rising at a distant crest, and again at the crest beyond that. The pack began to loosen, picking up from a jog to a full running pace, some runners in my way, so I had to veer and weave to pass them, but mostly others jockeying to pass me, hundreds it seemed. Before long, I settled into my run. After three or four miles, there seemed to be about 25 runners at my pace, sometimes ahead, sometimes falling back. We were a constant. Others still might pass us, and we might overtake slower runners. There were bodies of every type, every age. Tall and short, overweight and lanky, men and women, college kids, roommate girls, midlife Moms, a number of people wearing Dana-Farber Cancer Institute T-shirts, some paunchy Boston policemen, a scattering of white-haired seniors. Some runners were in pairs or in groups, supporting each other. There was causal chatter. There was even an element of clowns, as if running the race were no chore.
I had no idea that there were five serious hills. The first was just after mile 12 up past Wellesley College, where a gauntlet of students loudly cheered everyone, even us, even me. Then Route 16 through Wellesley, past stretches of parks and suburban blocks, a flat two miles, until a surprise downhill into Newton Lower Falls and then the second hill (was this Heartbreak, I wondered?), a steep, ¾-mile grade that crested over Route 128 at the Wellesley Hospital. By this point runners were straggling. Instead of the inspiration of collective possibility, there was now the breaking of ranks, admissions of defeat, which were demoralizing. Footsore and cramping, clammy with sweat, mouth pasty from jellybeans and Gatorade, I continued down to the turn at the Newton firehouse onto Commonwealth Avenue, and was stunned to see a third steep hill, which I managed to climb, concentrating on my feet and passing scores of walkers, but after the downgrade, faced with a fourth hill at mile 18, I faltered to a walk, just to catch my breath, then ran, then walked, and cleared that crest, ran painfully downhill again past Newton City Hall, then had to struggle the mile up Heartbreak Hill, while others ran past me.
When I was halfway up, I was overtaken by a man not only running, but running while pushing his grown, paraplegic son ahead of him in a special wheelchair – these were the legendary Hoights, I would later learn, who had been running the marathon for years. Bystanders exhorted me, along with the multitude of other walkers: “Keep running. C’mon, you can run. Don’t walk! It’s the last hill. You are almost over the top. It’s all downhill from here.” I mustered a stagger run for 10 yards, then faltered. The uphill felt so steep that I could reach forward and touch the ground rising ahead of me. At the top, I started to run again, letting gravity pull me. I would finish this way, I reasoned; walking up the hills, running down. Boston College fraternity kids were swilling beer on the sidelines and yelling. Rock music blasted from their open windows. There were more and more stretches of walking, but never without running, too. A long stretch from Boston College to Cleveland Circle, and then the turn on Beacon Street, and more sudden rises, mile 23, and coming into Kenmore Square, mile 25. I trudged up and over the punishing rise over the Massachusetts Turnpike, then ran some more, determined to finish. I finished the last mile at an agonized run, turning the corner on Hereford, and then onto Boylston, and even found a desperation burst for the finish line, at last, only to be passed and pushed over to the bandit exit where no one noticed or greeted me, except for a few Red Cross helpers asking if I needed water.
The Boston Marathon or any marathon is not the distinct occasion that it appears to be, the mark of uncommonness that compels respect from other, un-athletic mortals, other runners, and from oneself. The training itself is the mark, the way of life. For each marathon, the four months or more of managing time, of managing relationships, of managing work, of managing nutrition, spirituality and health. The accretion, daily, of seven to ten to fifteen, to eighteen, to twenty-mile runs, in my case, around the Charles River bike path. Runs at all times of day, all seasons, all weathers. The accretion, too, of one hour, to two, to three, to four sometimes each day, six days a week (one day for rest): dawn runs; midday in winter for the heat; twilight or darkness in summer heat waves. Where does such time come from? What gets displaced? The empty time? The brooding time? The television time? Spared injuries, the setbacks of hard colds or flu. The shoes run down, replaced. The running shorts and T-shirts and sweatbands and socks. The daily laundries. The gradual weight loss and muscle development.
Running has its morality. Lessons that I needed to rehearse.
There is the lesson of self-awareness and acceptance, beyond unrealistic ambition. You need to settle within your capacity and perform there as well as you are given to perform, this time. This is a different matter from being better than you are, or can be, by accident or miracle.
There is the lesson of rehearsing a death: the callisthenic of having to falter, to fail against your will and dream and achieving. The mortification, literally. All the coaching advice about dealing with “the wall” and about psyching yourself beyond the wall doesn’t apply for me. My lesson is in reaching and honoring limits, not in ignoring them.
There is the lesson that all activities -- teaching, parenting, writing, sex -- have their distinct karma and the point is to immerse will and effort into its inevitable nature. If it is given for the run to be 10 miles, 15, 20, then it is. If it is not given, then it is not. It is not for me to force or will the outcome. Strength is not the issue. The run itself is the issue.
There is the lesson of celebrating, from your individual limits, the glory of full human possibility. The constant flow of runners, thousands and thousands of others -- not just the elite, but the good, the average, the lucky, the dogged (each has a life, each has negotiated a way to spend two or more hours for training each day for four months while still parenting and still holding down a job, each has fought snows and freezing temperatures through the hard winter) -- as they continue up and over the hills and close the last six miles to the finish.
In recent years I have only managed one 10K race each April, the James Joyce Ramble in Dedham, and this year I haven’t even managed that.
Still, each spring, marathon fever fills the air. I see runners pushing for distance around the Charles as I drive to school. Come Marathon Monday, I watch the coverage on TV, beginning in Hopkinton. I feel the anticipation. And there again is Johnny Kelley, no longer able to run even the final mile of the race, and barely able to make it to the microphone, but he does, one more time, singing his song. The announcer recounts Johnny’s 61 appearances in the Boston Marathon, his two wins, his seven finishes as second.
As the race gets underway, with cameras following the leaders, I am in fact in the gym, on my treadmill with a TV console at eye level and earphones plugged in. I am remembering. The sights, the smells, the company, the pain, the dream. I watch the leaders, the men passing familiar landmarks, then the women. I can feel the race happening. And even as I drive home, I listen on the radio.
This is aging. Life itself is our glory and ordeal, our measure of heart, and of passion. We do our best. There is no finish line.
The Boston Globe
A bountiful harvest of thoughts on life's journey
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size – + By Chuck Leddy
April 21, 2008
Safe Suicide: Narratives,
Essays, and Meditations
By DeWitt Henry
Red Hen Press, 200 pp., $23
more stories like this
In this interconnected collection of autobiographical essays, we're brought into the fascinating life of a Boston-area novelist and editor struggling to build a viable writing career, sustain an important literary journal, and become a loving husband, father, and friend. Since these struggles are all accompanied by drama and pain (but also unexpected pleasures), DeWitt Henry's vivid collection reads like an absorbing coming-of-age memoir.
Henry is the founding editor of "Ploughshares," a Boston-based literary journal that has published literary luminaries such as Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and Richard Yates. For Henry, "Ploughshares" was a labor of love (meaning, it almost ruined him financially). Henry describes the seat-of-the-pants nature of those early days putting out the journal: "Connie and I would stuff copies into mailing bags, staple the bags, hand address, and put stamps on perhaps 1,000 copies to subscribers . . . Our couch, dining table, chairs, every available surface would be covered with stacks of copies."
Henry became an important part of Boston's literary community. He befriended Boston-based fiction writer Yates, who remains among the most woefully underappreciated writers of the 20th century. After Yates had not been seen for several days, a worried Henry and friend Dan Wakefield went to Yates's apartment: "after we climbed the stairs to his landing, he shouted to us that his door was locked, that someone must get him out, he couldn't get himself out." They got the door open, and Yates "greeted us with crazed, speeding, and brilliant invective." Henry describes the pain of having Yates sent to a mental hospital.
Henry's own writing career was a constant struggle against rejection and self-doubt. "I would send out my second book with high hopes," writes Henry, "only to meet with more rejections - good book, unmarketable. I would come to doubt my own motives and validity . . . I would have the impulse to abandon everything." In strong, intimate prose, Henry describes how he improvised a life, struggling with himself but ultimately finding his way.
Henry's struggles are not all dark. As the father of college-age Ruth, Henry describes being awake in bed while his daughter arrives home at 5:02 a.m. on Sunday after a night of fun. Henry is pulled between leaving her be and racing downstairs to give her the third degree (where were you, what did you do?). Henry considers his dilemma: "I consider and fear the worst, while the poppa in me . . . churns over possibilities, discretions, and indiscretions." Henry can't sleep, wondering "where do my responsibilities lie?"
The book's funniest moment comes when a teenage Ruth gets permission to have her boyfriend sleep over the house. Henry and his wife, Connie, ultimately go upstairs to bed, while Ruth and her boyfriend remain downstairs: "Connie sinks into sleep, but The Poppa lies wide-awake, listening, too aware of myself at sixteen . . . Was that a step, creaking?" When Henry sneaks downstairs and finds daughter and boyfriend in bed making out, he decides against his cool-daddy silence: "Excuse me," he says as calmly as possible (i.e., not calmly), "With freedom goes responsibility! I just want you to hear that."
"Safe Suicide" is held together by Henry's searching voice, his attempts to do the right thing even when it's difficult. The book's trajectory shows him growing into manhood, finding love, work, and a family that gives his life meaning. After describing his journey, Henry ends on a humble note of grace: "Life itself is our glory and ordeal, our measure of heart, and passion. We do our best."
Confessions of an editor
DeWitt Henry's candid new collection of essays meditates on manhood
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN | June 20, 2008 | Recommended By 10 People
In Safe Suicide, an assemblage of revealing, interrelated essays, DeWitt Henry — Emerson professor, writer, and founding editor and longtime guiding creative force behind literary magazine Ploughshares — offers up to us his world, honest and intimate. The essays concern his family life growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs (sexually charged; alcoholic father looming); his marriage and struggles over his own possible parenthood (questions of sacrifice as well as his readiness, willingness, and even ability to be a father); the birth, adoption, and raising of his two children; the genesis and development of Ploughshares and the literary scene in Boston from the seventies onward; plus, thwarted ambition, marathon training, fatherhood, friendship, and the lifelong challenge of how and where to focus and divide your passions. Taken together, the essays become an extended — and elegant — meditation on manhood.
Henry’s candor in writing about his childhood and adolescence can be disarming — is he actually telling us this? In “Subversions,” the strongest piece in the collection, Henry recalls himself as an eleven-year-old when his mother asks him to please rub Ben-Gay on her aching back. “She tells me harder, more, and I feel queasy, and even angry, rubbing as high as under her brassiere strap and as low, at her insistence, as the top of her buttocks and buttocks crevice.” We’re squeamish with him, cringey, discomforted. Later in that same essay, he reveals that as a 13-year-old, toeing the threshold of sex, he asked his 20-year-old sister if he might see her naked. A bold request. Bolder still: she obliges, in the fullest possible way, “showing me more than I had understanding to see.” Henry’s writing is confessional, yes, but these episodes don’t feel designed to shock. More so, they’re an acknowledgement of the strange, strained intimacies we share.
Henry takes a more guarded, distanced approach in describing his father, a recovering alcoholic, “perpetually brooding, silent and withdrawn.” The overriding attribute ascribed to him is of impotence, “of utter flaccidity.” It’s a motif (and a condition) that will echo in Henry’s life as well. In “Arrivals,” another highlight — which, paired with “Subversions” carries much of the emotional ballast of the collection — Henry parallels his reluctance over starting a family (“just a little longer”) and eventual acceptance (due in part to advice from writer Richard Yates: “Think of the girl”) with the beginnings of his literary life and the founding of Ploughshares. His exhilaration and pride, over his new daughter and the literary magazine, are richly felt. But infertility, of body and mind, will afflict and nearly cripple him. It takes balls to admit that your novel gets repeatedly rejected, that you can’t make your wife pregnant. And here again, Henry’s candor gives access to great depths of frustration and fear.
The essays that falter are ones that tend towards the observational, towards the improvised or experimental. In “Bungee,” for example, Henry gives an account bungee jumping at a writer’s conference out west. He writes: “fall forward, as if to dive, pulling coils of the bungee after, so all becomes resistless drop, weight seeking earth like love, weight weightless, plummeting, dropping, nothing to catch, to grab, all loss and empty, wild, let be, let, plummeting, faster . . .” and so on. The galloping prose is almost too predictable for the subject matter, and the thrust of the essay — how close we can come to throwing everything away — gets diluted because of it. The same is true in the pieces that relay dreams Henry has had (if there are words that trigger instantaneous zoning out better than “So, I had this dream last night,” I don’t know them).
Though the shorter meditations and more experimental pieces don’t achieve the same heft and emotional resonance as the more “traditional” essays, they do serve in providing varied cadence to the collection. And throughout, Henry is able to imbue weight and significance to the daily trials: housebreaking a dog, changing an ink cartridge in a printer, choosing how to react to a daughter come home too late at night. And throughout, he demonstrates a reverence and a respect for his family, his fellow writers, his students, and the onward thumping push of life. “My fifty-sixth autumn,” he marvels in “Beautiful Flower,” “yet still . . . I stare with disbelief at the colors, the crimson glow, leaves lit by sunlight, against the deep blue of the sky.” There’s a quiet courage in these essays, and a revelatory sense of the continuing challenge of pressing on.
DeWitt Henry reads from Safe Suicidethis Sunday, June 22, at 2 pm at Newtonville Books, 296 Walnut Street, Newtonville. Free. For more information call 617.244.6619.