A rite of passage for most middle-aged folks is the death of a parent or parents, catalyzing grief-soaked meditations on mortality, family, the accounting of a life. In 2017 we saw beautiful memoirs kindled by the recent passing of a mother, such as Sherman’s Alexie’s manic, searing collage, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” or a father, as in Daniel Mendelsohn’s myth-rich, elegant “An Odyssey.”
David Giffels approaches these themes from a curious angle. As he nears his 50th birthday, Giffels, a professor of creative writing at the University of Akron and a native of that city, sketches an enigmatic project: the building of his own coffin with his octogenarian father, Thomas. Both men are amateur woodworkers, skilled with saws and splines, their workshops well stocked with clamps and nails.
Thomas had had a cancer scare when his ailing wife was snuffed out by the disease. The coffin, then, is transparently a vehicle for contemplating death of loved ones as well as self, but it’s also a tangible cord that binds father and son, coated with layers of memory and misprision, and fumbling moves toward intimacy. The idea of making a coffin appeals to the artisan in him.
“Since I came from an old-school Catholic family, the only tradition I knew … was the missionary position of American funerals: regiments of bouquets on wire stands, their stink of lavender; address books scrawled with the names of dutiful mourners; Mother Mary prayer cards slid into the pockets of ill-fitting suits. … Too formal. Too shiny. Too old-fogy.”
As father and son embark on the project, Giffels’ longtime best friend, John, an artist, is diagnosed with fatal esophageal cancer; his rapid decline imbues “Furnishing Eternity” with elegiac power. John is the most alive of any character, jumping off the page with his passion for indie rock and ink-on-vellum drawings, his “Beavis and Butt-head” sense of humor and aging Lothario ways.
The memoir is strongest when it’s focused on Giffels and his father in the workshop, tactile and immediate, as Giffels evokes the lush grains of wood, the tools’ allure, the “mealy” spray of sawdust. Occasionally the narrative goes slack, marred by gratuitous asides and editorializing: “The longer we live, the less certain we are of anything, especially our own selves.”
When father and son pause their work, it’s difficult to avoid the judgment that Giffels is losing interest in his story. Fortunately, “Furnishing Eternity” rallies as the two men finally push across the finish line. Giffels decides to try out his final home: “[I] climbed up, reached one leg over the edge, and stepped in. My boot made a dirty print on the mint-colored paint of the bottom. … I felt much deeper inside it than I’d imagined. … Like a child in a parent’s overcoat.”
A varnished, carefully crafted box, a spark of life within: Here’s an obvious yet affecting metaphor for the book itself.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing,” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.
By: David Giffels.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 243 pages, $24.