When one sets about doing harm, the people most likely to be hurt are the ones across the table, if only by reason of proximity. Look up quotes on the word “family,” and much of what comes up is either sarcastic or humorous. Hamlet’s stepfather says to him, “My cousin Hamlet, and my son,” and the young prince responds, “A little more than kin, and less than kind,” with both “kin” and “kind” carrying multiple levels of dark irony. This is the norm even when your stepfather/uncle didn’t murder your father and marry your mother. Bring up the issue of relatives, and mockery soon follows. “I had no blood relatives until I made some,” says comedian Andy Dick. And yet of course the other feelings continue to survive right alongside the sarcasm— the fondness, love and hope that we associate with both our relatives and our origins.
This issue is about both sides of the coin of family. Our Jeffrey E. Smith winner in fiction is Yuko Sakata’s “Unintended,” a story that shows the effects of parents’ problems on a child. The protagonist, Shinji, has recently separated from his wife and, needing a place to stay, goes to live for a while with his cousin. There he discovers that their teenaged son, Kazuo, is troubled and recently had an unexplained spell of amnesia and hypersomnia. Shinji develops a rapport with Kazuo, who talks with him about accidental or “unintended” places where people can leave what they want to discard. When Shinji learns the secret about Kazuo’s parents, he understands that the boy has coped with their situation by developing a ritual of displacement. The story is a real and compelling and extraordinarily intimate portrait of complex adolescent psychology.
Jessica Francis Kane’s “The Essentials of Acceleration” describes a middle-aged woman who has never escaped the gravitational pull of her father. The narrator of this precisely written story is Holly Levering, a forty-year-old spinster who lives with her aging father, as both continue to grieve the death of Holly’s mother in a car accident many years earlier. While Holly’s father has reacted to the death by finding creative outlets, including gardening, and has developed friendly relationships with the housewives in their neighborhood, Holly has embraced isolation, distancing herself from people, becoming compulsively skillful at driving and limiting her emotional involvement even with her father.
Thomas Pierce’s “Grasshopper Kings” describes a warmer relationship between the generations. Flynn, a former drinker, works at a substance-abuse facility. Trying to help his son Ryan, who is developing a taste for pyromania, he accompanies him to camp with the Grasshoppers, a Boy Scout-like group. Flynn has to ask an attorney acquaintance to bend the rules to get permission for Ryan and him to attend, since Ryan is not yet a member of this exclusive group. As father and son participate in the camp’s activities, which involve learning secret “truths,” Flynn discovers that the Grasshoppers are all too much like the adult world. Certain people are more successful than others because they are better at gaining entry into the right circles, an ability he lacks, and which finally in some way unites him with his son.
This year’s Smith Prize-winning essay is Peter Selgin’s wonderful memoir “The Kuhreihen Melody,” which describes going back to Bethel, Connecticut, where Selgin grew up in the 1960s. He tours the town with his elderly widowed mother, fulfilling a dream he’s had for years of returning to his home and his history. The essay vividly and lyrically recollects a town, its houses and businesses and the people who lived there, at the same time exploring the author’s admittedly peculiar and perhaps self-defeating fascination with his own past.
“Leftovers, 1993” is Dave Zoby’s comic memoir of a clash with his engineer father in the nineties, when he was living the graduate-school student life of irresponsibility and self-indulgence. The essay describes an epic battle the two had over a Thanksgiving turkey that Dave was supposed to cook, and that his father, based on long experience, did not believe he could successfully manage. It’s a fresh and funny tale of art versus science and rebellious youth versus prudent age, and the portrait Zoby draws of himself is an unapologetic look at a flawed earlier self. “My Father’s Women” by Mako Yoshikawa narrates the attempt of Mako and her sisters to desconstruct the relationships of her famous scientist father after his death. Though her father was a brilliant MIT physicist in the mid-twentieth century, mental illness prevented him from fulfilling his promise and also from having a successful marriage, no matter how often he tried. His daughters compare opinions about which wife or girlfriend, if any, he loved. The essay is less an elegy than an objective portrait that realistically evaluates the effects of mental illness on a life.
Michael Piafsky’s interview of David Milch is a fascinating look at the brilliant and combative director and producer of several television series. Milch grew up in Buffalo, went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was later creator of NYPD-Blue as well as the eccentric HBO series Deadwood. Milch describes both the bizarre world of television production and his own flaws and mistakes. These include an addiction to gambling, which started when he was a boy traveling with his father to Saratoga Springs. In a galvanized and at times confrontational conversation, he also discusses his recently launched series Luck, as well as the mental processes that constitute living and making art.
Kris Somerville’s omnibus review looks at four recent books, written or edited by experts in the fields of neurology and psychiatry, which evaluate the possible links between artistic creation and mental illness and speculate about whether mental instability enables or impairs the creative process. For artists, the level of intensity necessary to create something fresh and new can often feel like a type of insanity, and these books examine whether mental illness in fact does exist at a disproportionate rate among them and, if so, why.
David Kirby’s poems feature—well, David Kirby—but in the midst of his family—his very big family that is poetry. Fathers, sons, daughters and mothers mill about in his lines, as well as Osip Mandelstam, Barney, and, as befits any big family holiday, the Antichrist. What is kinship but such camaraderie and indulgence, such empathy and ridicule, finding its place among “the wisdom of the books / the mighty dead have written.” Steve Gehrke’s poems travel the edge of madness, brokenness, and collapse. Like Auden’s tea cup, there’s a “crack in the sheetrock that makes the whole house sag, / a lane between what’s expunged and what remains.” Never healed or whole, split between the world and the mind that “half-creates” it, Gehrke’s poems struggle toward “a reconciliation with the flesh.” In turns observant and solicitous, Mark Wunderlich’s poems long for a kinship with nature and God: pastorals that see “what wildness” can be discovered in their lines, alongside supplications that beg to glimpse God’s “gleaming hem.” As a tenant in this violent natural world, the poet longs to “feel” the Deity.