Howard Norman’s writing is compelling in its restraint. That may sound like trumped-up literary-critic praise and not an honest reaction: Who really likes restraint? It’s a withholding of something, not a giving. But it’s also a mystery. The dry, elliptical utterances hinting at hidden depths of feeling; the terse precision of word choice; the rhythmic prose circling something unspoken — in part-time Vermonter Norman’s fiction, all these forms of restraint generate uncommon tension and beauty.
In a memoir, however, many readers expect the opposite of restraint. From St. Augustine to Rousseau and onward, confession — usually with all the gory details — has been the cornerstone of autobiograpy. For the typical memoirist today, the genre offers an opportunity to make oneself the hero of a story, whether it’s “I survived an insane upbringing” or “My addiction hurt everyone I loved.”
Readers will find no such self-mythologizing in Norman’s I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, a memoir composed of five separate narratives, each set at a different time and place in the author’s life. These chapters do hold dark acts and accidents, some of them perpetrated by the narrator and more of them weathered by him: a father’s abandonment, a theft that leads to violence, a lover’s death, a reckless auction bid, an icon’s murder, a poet’s murder-suicide. But there is no overarching tale of, say, endurance or coming of age. The closest Norman comes to unifying his work under any such “theme” is in the introduction, where he writes:
How does someone with a confused soul, as I consider mine to be, try to gain some clarity and keep some emotional balance and find some joy, especially after a number of incidents of arresting strangeness have happened in a life? […]
If there is one thing that connects these disparate experiences, it is the hopeful idea of locating myself in beloved landscapes — Northern California, Nova Scotia, Vermont, the Arctic — and of describing how they offered a home for honest introspection, a place to think things through. Often I just wanted to look at birds for days on end, shore birds in particular.
As a theme for a memoir, this “hopeful idea” may sound anticlimactic in the extreme: Wait, weird and disturbing stuff happened to you, and then you healed by looking at birds? Indeed, the memoir repeatedly describes Norman doing just that — no dramatic confrontations, no lyrical epiphanies. Just watching birds (or people). And the result is mysteriously satisfying, much like the author’s avian encounters.
Let’s start with those. Norman doesn’t help out undergrad essay writers — who will recognize birds as a recurring motif in his work — by explaining here what they “mean” to him. Just the opposite. In one chapter, Isador Sarovnik, an escapee from Nazi Germany whom the author describes as his surrogate uncle, poses an acerbic question: “What’s with you and birds, anyway? I don’t understand.”
Norman’s answer is maddeningly enigmatic or perfectly sufficient, depending on your point of view: “I look at those sea ducks and I wonder where they go at the end of a day.”
Where Isador doubtless expects insight into Norman’s avian fascination — do birds represent freedom to him? A stable family “nest”? — all he gets is more specifics, and a mystery that, Isador claims, isn’t really one: “At the end of the day they go home,” he snaps back. “What’s there to figure out?”
Actually, maybe there’s a lot to figure out, starting with what it means to “go home.” In I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, the nature of home is ever shifting, never guaranteed, fraught with ominous potential. The first section, “Advice of the Fatherly Sort,” takes us to Norman’s boyhood home in Grand Rapids, Mich. — a home that, without explanation, his father has abandoned. (He’s become a fixture at the local soda fountain.) In “Grey Geese Descending,” set in Halifax, the author makes himself at home in his late girlfriend’s apartment and mourns her by conducting nightly séances there.
The title essay takes us to Pangnirtung, an Arctic village where the local folklore is rife with “threatening entities” that appear over the horizon to menace the homeland. In “Kingfisher Days,” Norman’s Vermont summer home is haunted by visions of a Confederate soldier. And in the final section, “The Healing Powers of the Western Oystercatcher,” the author and his family must recover from an unthinkable violation of their Washington, D.C., home after a summer tenant kills herself and her son there.
The book’s title comes from an Inuit tale translated by Norman during his years collecting Arctic oral histories: It’s the cry of a man who has been transformed into a goose and must migrate or die. But sometimes, Norman’s remembrances suggest, home migrates from us. And the only way to lure back the sense of safety — always temporary — is through rituals, stories and a quiet openness to the world.
That meditative openness is key to grasping why this memoir is not just — or even primarily — about the travails of Howard Norman. If the author exercises unusual restraint in telling us how he felt about a given event, it’s not because he’s close-lipped, but because he has so much to show us.
Some of the book’s most powerful passages are ones where the narrator is more observer than actor. In the Arctic chapter, for instance, Norman describes learning of John Lennon’s shooting from the radio. The news provokes a drunken, all-night jam by an Inuit Lennon cover band called Nanook the Gook, the lyrics “distinctly accompanied by … fits of sobbing.” In another passage (see excerpt), Norman chronicles the bird life he observes at California’s Point Reyes National Seashore, where he’s gone to recover a sense of “joy” after the incident that brought undesired fame on his D.C. house.
These acts of witnessing are conveyed in artful, never self-consciously “literary” prose. The spaces between Norman’s sentences and paragraphs — what isn’t said — pack as much punch as the words themselves. (“Through the bookmobile window,” he writes, for instance, “I saw my father eleven times that summer. The number has no meaning except that it wasn’t more or less. Yet I remember it was eleven.”) The same is true of dialogue, which Norman presents like a dramatist, reproducing long exchanges with minimal tags or commentary.
There are gory details here, for the patient reader, and self-insight, too. But I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place is the antithesis of a “tell-all.” Norman demonstrates that telling just some of the story, and telling it right, is the best way to make readers feel like they’ve been steeped in the atmosphere of his “beautiful places” and would hate to leave them, too.
"I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place" by Howard Norman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 194 pages. $26.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Sightings of a Life".