If dating shows and self-help books have it right, romantic love is all about finding a soul mate -- the one person out there who "completes" you; who heals your childhood wounds and invites you into the perfect symbiosis of two. The only problem is that, as Tristan and Isolde and Sid and Nancy discovered, soul mates can tear each other's lives apart.
In her memoir Fault Line, part of the University of Nebraska's American Lives series, Vermont College professor Laurie Alberts tells the story of her 16-year relationship with a man whose name she still invokes as "my mantra, my shield against humiliation and fear." A lover, a surrogate parent, an intellectual partner, Kim Janik was also the man she had to leave in order to achieve what most of us see as the logical fruits of a love story: the happy marriage, the country house, the child. That paradox fuels Alberts' narrative, which is set against the background of an era -- the late '60s and early '70s -- when fairy tales were turned on their heads, and conventional notions of achievement and success were set adrift.
Laurie Alberts and Kim Janik first met in 1969, when he served drinks and she carried canapes at a cocktail party in upscale Lexington, Massachusetts. She was a high school junior from a "good home," he a Harvard scholarship student from a working-class family out West. The memoir doesn't begin with that meeting, however, but in 1996. That's when Alberts learned by chance that Kim had "died alone in a wilderness somewhere out West," after years of an itinerant life and chronic alcoholism. Weakened by dehydration, he collapsed in the Wyoming high country, where a rancher found his remains 10 days later. Nearby was a car full of belongings, including a single snapshot of college-aged Kim standing beside a pretty, dark-haired girl -- Alberts.
Why did Kim keep the photograph? How did a promising physics student and poet, who read voraciously and had a gift for teaching, end up dying like a derelict? Like Jon Krakauer's best-seller Into the Wild, Fault Line is the story of a "golden boy" whose rejection of the American dream led him into a finally fatal isolation. Unlike Krakauer's book, though, Alberts' places that isolation in the context of a relationship. As she succinctly puts it, "Perhaps it was our fault line, not [Kim's] alone, and I got to rise as he fell."
A relationship between a college student and a needy 16-year-old with an abusive father -- today, this might raise immediate cries of "exploitation." But Alberts makes it clear that between Kim and her, the exploitation was mutual. She clung to him and cheated on him with a succession of men; he fumed possessively but couldn't "banish" her.
As the setting shifts to the Southwest and the drug-addled, directionless nomadism of early '70s' counterculture, we see Kim and Alberts increasingly embroiled in complementary compulsions: his drinking, her promiscuity. As Alberts puts it, "I was a kid desperately pushing for limits" -- and Kim couldn't provide them. Yet he refused to let go of the relationship, and today Alberts thinks that his "professed inability to give up on us... was as destructive an addiction as the booze."
A love story like this has no defined dramatic arc, no "climax" -- in the end, all the lovers can do is pull themselves, inch by painful inch, out of their mutual dependence. Yet Alberts has crafted a narrative that manages to convey failure, inertia and repetition without falling prey to them. Her prose has a colloquial zip and an in-your-face candor, reminiscent of the young girl who refused to stay in one place (see excerpt).
Fault Line also has a more mature, reflective dimension. All confessional memoirs, even ones that don't flatter the author, give him or her immense leeway for bias and narcissism. It's a problem of which Alberts, the author of three novels, may be especially aware: When retelling the past, how does one avoid turning oneself into the hero of a semi-fiction? In a series of asides, she confronts the egotism of the memoirist, wondering whether she's given herself too important a role in Kim's life: "Who doesn't want to think herself the object of undying love, the central player in another's drama, even if that drama is questionable?"
The book gains dramatic urgency from Alberts' present-day efforts to retrace the last stages of Kim's life -- visiting his favorite seedy motel on Interstate 91, tramping through a Wyoming state park to see the spot where he died. There's no "mystery" here in the conventional sense, only a futile search for understanding. At one point, Alberts uses her experience as a novelist to imagine herself into Kim's last hours -- a powerful passage, but, she acknowledges, a false one. "Perhaps [Kim]'s eluded me as he eluded everyone else," she concedes at last.
Despite her own caveats, it's a testament to the success of Alberts' memoir that, in the end, it feels like two people's story. Two people and maybe more; our deepest motive for writing about the past, Alberts suggests, is a desire to put the fragments of our lives together in a story that makes sense. "Perhaps we all long for our former selves, even if those selves were misguided or worse," she writes. "It's still a loss, a self we'll never meet again, as much a part of us -- and as disconnected from us -- as a first love." A first love, a past self -- this book is a fitting elegy for both.
An excerpt from Fault Line
Wyoming: the wind howled, brown grasses bent horizontal, antelope leaped across dead fields. My puppy shivered on her rope. Cowboys screamed from their pickups, gave us the finger. We slept in abandoned buildings with drunken squatters, or in the vans of other travelling longhairs. When we couldn't find someone to take us in, Kim spent his last dollars on a motel room in whatever dive we could walk to.
I paced the small rectangle: a sink on the wall with rust stains, yellowed blinds torn in one corner, dirt ground into the thin carpet, a tilting dresser. Kim was in the bathroom. I laced my boots, stuffed my belongings back into the pack. Outside the wind wailed. What was taking so long? I needed to be moving, moving, moving. Two strong impulses kept me running -- the hunger to discover, the desire to flee. All Albertses are frantic with impatience; all of us have spent much of our lives running from ourselves. My father can put fifty thousand miles a year on a car just to keep moving; my sister fills all dead time with logistical details; my brother works seventy hours a week. My mother, even while enduring radiation therapy, won't miss an art opening or a concert -- anything not to stay home. Motion is our first drug. In this second life, the quiet one I've been granted, to endure a child's lolling pace is still a strenuous test of my will.
"Hey," I called to Kim, "let's get going."
"Laurie," Kim's voice was muffled behind the bathroom door. "I'd like to take a shit in peace, if you don't mind."
"Well, do you have to be so slow about it?" I could have been my father, fuming at my mother for sipping coffee -- he threw cold water into his tea so as not to waste time -- or berating one of his kids for being too slow tying a shoe.
"Yes I DO!" Kim shouted back.
"Well excuse me. What are you doing in there, anyway? Writing poems? I was ready half an hour ago. You aren't even packed."
The sound of flushing. Kim came out and started arranging things carefully into his pack. "God, do you always have to be so meticulous?" I complained.
"Jesus Christ!" Kim pitched a pair of socks across the room. The puppy whined fearfully. "Do you have to be such a bitch? What's the rush? Where do you even think you're going?" Kim sat down on the bed, its bad springs sinking. His face looked ashy, drained. "Look, Laurie," he said, "why don't you just go on out there by yourself and I'll head back to Morrissey? You don't need me as your chaperone."
"No!" I didn't want to stand out there alone in that wind, with the hippie-hating cowboys leering. "No, I do want you with me. I do. I need you with me. Please. Please."