In the publicity material that accompanies Jessica Hendry Nelson’s new memoir, she is compared to four masters of memoir including Mary Karr and Jeanette Walls. The accolades reminded me of a fable about a man who was afraid that when he reached heaven God would ask him why he wasn’t smarter or holier. But in the end, God asked him a more difficult question: Why wasn’t he more like himself?
Owing to the way books are marketed these days, it is tough for a debut writer to be like herself —
Hendry Nelson mostly uses very specific details and images to advance her story rather than just embroider the narrative with pretty language — although make no mistake; she is a skillful writer. Hendry Nelson gets out of the gate quickly with a letter to her younger brother Eric, largely absent in her life due to demons that include drug addiction and stints in jail.
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But those particulars are only gradually revealed throughout the essays. Instead, the prologue presents the reader with a clear-eyed view of the various rehab centers, hospitals, and halfway houses where she and her brother had visited their father a generation earlier. These are places in which “the men look interrupted, rather than finished.”
Gradual revelation and occasional surprise make these essays fresh and startling. The drug-addled father had once been a “solemn boy, too much in his head.” His defection from the family creates a triangle made up of brother, mother, and Hendry Nelson.
Hendry Nelson’s mother wrestles with alcoholism. Her inappropriateness comes from the fact that “[s]he will ride a conversation to unintended heights and then watch the thoughts tumble over an unforeseen precipice, bewildered.”
Hendry Nelson is both brilliant and facile in her use of language. She occasionally chokes on her rich prose as she does here. Like many young writers she’s energized by the places that language can take her. But at some point the tumbling thoughts need to be made concrete. Does Hendry Nelson’s mother slur her way into confession or self-pity? Or simply pathetic nonsense? This is where Hendry Nelson’s language turns away from its gorgeous specificity into the murky landscape of abstraction.
But she hits her stride in a scene that takes place just after her grandfather’s death. Eric, who is now 20, attends the funeral in shackles, immediately returning to jail after the service.
Her paternal grandparents are Jewish and observe shiva, the seven days of ritual mourning. An alternative world unfurls for Hendry Nelson as she stumbles through a stilted English translation of the Hebrew prayers. She’s struck by her little cousins’ literacy in Hebrew and burgeoning spirituality. “I say a silent prayer for my brother and for the cousins, too — a prayer that this faith will be more sustaining for them than the one I am struggling to erect for myself.”
The struggle to pray, to write is more clearly evinced in the latter half of the book. It’s as if Hendry Nelson had to lay out the basics of her life, including the strata of her teenage struggles, to explore finally what matters most to her.
These later essays are successful because they are as reliant on reflection as they are on action or language. Her observation about starting out in New York City is an apt description of the evolution of her work. “Like an overstimulated child, I couldn’t block things out, narrow the focus. Edit. Instead I took it all in all the time.”
Eventually Jessica Hendry Nelson bravely forges her own voice in these complex essays. She succeeds in editing herself — that is shaping herself as a writer — and in the process stakes out a place as an admirable practitioner of contemporary memoir.