An unsentimental truth: We spend our early adulthoods running away from our families and our later years sidling back for a better look. What are we seeking on those prodigal return visits? Apologies? Forgiveness? An understanding of who these people are and thus who we are? There are as many answers as there are families.
In “Screening Room,” Alan Lightman goes back home and wrestles his past to a draw. The author grew up in Memphis and fled north for college, later settling in the Boston area. Both scientist and creative writer, astrophysicist and poet, he’s an MIT professor and author of the 1992 best-selling novel “Einstein’s Dreams.” An accomplished man. Yet the tone of his latest work, less a memoir as billed and more a memory play, is one of uncertainty, Lightman gingerly testing the floorboards of his past to see whether they’ll hold.
There’s a family tree in the opening pages, and at the top is the author’s great-grandfather Joseph Lightman, a.k.a. “Papa Joe,” who came to America from Budapest in 1881 and worked his way south. Beneath him is the family’s true patriarch and the ghost who haunts everyone who came after: M.A. Lightman. A powerful, confident personality, he quit civil engineering in 1915 to open a nickelodeon and ended up the most successful movie-theater owner in the South. Most of the extended Lightman clan worked in the business, and Alan put in his years as an usher and substandard assistant theater manager. So you would think that “Screening Room” would be about the cinema, and to some extent it is. But mostly it concerns the images that play across our minds, and most of them are memories rather than movies.
The book begins with the author returning to Memphis for the funeral of an uncle, and we’re quickly introduced to the Lightman clan — mostly the colorful, much-married children of M.A. and his sister. They are very old now, and Lightman marvels at both their fragility and cussed strength, savoring the scandalous old stories like a child sitting at the top of the stairs, listening to a party below. These people knew how to drink, live, love — no wonder a quiet boy with an interest in the planets felt like an alien in their midst.
“Screening Room” is as much about Memphis and its humid, corrupt history. There are chapters on E.H. “Boss” Crump, who ran the city for decades, on Elvis Presley, and on the parallel lives of Jews in southern society. And there is a slow, steady look at the cruelly constricted world of African-Americans, ranging from the women and men who worked for Lightman’s family (and in some cases were closer to the author than family) to Martin Luther King Jr. who came to Memphis in 1968 to support a sanitation worker’s strike and didn’t leave town alive. Lightman was in college by then and saw his hometown through the eyes of his horrified fellow students. He never moved back.
The book’s central relationship is between the author and his father, Richard, a gentle widower, married for years to a temperamentally dissatisfied wife, now in his 90s and deaf. Alan was once embarrassed by him, but in these pages he notes the subtlety with which the older man integrated Memphis’s movie theaters so that it was done before anyone noticed. Much of the son’s writing is extremely tender and toward the end comes a confession: “I wanted to apologize. For fifty years, I had sliced deeper his wounds. I had been a silent partner in his humiliation. I wanted forgiveness. But I could not say it. I was ashamed.”
That’s the heart of this very personal book, and it takes over 200 pages to get there. Anecdotal to a fault, “Screening Room” is at times an overly ambling drive through the author’s past, and some of the memories are never made to matter to us. Lightman is a gifted writer who has been seduced by nostalgia into lyricism, some of which raises goose-pimples of readerly delight and some of which turns purple, mawkish, or simply disconnected. This is the danger of reconnecting with the romance of our childhoods — that the emotions are too big for the words meant to hold them — and I doubt any of us are immune.
It thus comes as a shock to learn in the book’s afterward that some of the family characters enshrined herein have been lightly or wholly fictionalized, with one particularly high-living old cousin of Lightman’s father and her philosophical fifth husband — major supporting players in the comedy — simply made up. I don’t begrudge Lightman rearranging the family portraiture to preserve the peace or even to make for better stories, but I wish he’d tipped his hand before a reader came to like these people quite so much. It goes so far as to undercut what “Screening Room” professes to be about, which is coming to truthful terms with one’s past. In which case, the author is only giving us half a story.
But perhaps that’s the point, or one of them. Memory is never the whole truth, just our truth. Lightman bends his nostalgia through the prism of a writer’s creativity the way light through a projector blooms into a story on the screen. “The greatest trick of all is what happens inside our minds,” the author writes at one point, and he’s only pretending to talk about the movies.
Ty Burr can be reached at Ty.Burr@Globe.com.