Ben Miller grew up in Davenport, Iowa, a sleepy city on the banks of the Mississippi. His 1970s pre-adolescence was largely shaped by five siblings and an eccentric cast of locals, particularly the members of a writers’ group who were willing to take in a 12-year-old. But the most eccentric, most influential figures were his parents, whose shortcomings, in his telling, warped him badly. His father failed as a lawyer and a novelist, and his mother was — well, how much to say here?
In recent years readers have been trained to read memoirs in a certain way. They demand an early disclosure of personal drama — the addiction, the divorce, the life-threatening journey — and a book-long reckoning with it. “River Bend Chronicle” is a remarkable but challenging book that upends this tactic, hinting at something dire throughout its 400-plus pages but not explicitly stating it until near its end.
In the meantime, Miller makes his most mundane experiences shadowy. The opening chapter, for instance, is about the family hunt for a Christmas tree, a subject that’s fodder for plenty of hokey reminiscences. Here, though, Miller recalls his broke, fuming father incompetently sawing down a shrub. “We listened for sirens, watched for the men in white coats, and F-14s too,” he writes. “Wreaths of breath swirled around the head of the hulking shrub harvester.”
Miller’s prose throughout combines that knack for close observation and gently mocking tone, such as when he romanticizes his neighbor Mr. Hickey but bemusedly remembers how the man’s sister tried to equip him with a gun. His mother comes in for the harshest treatment, as he catalogs her self-martrying attitude and emotional disorganization, symbolized by a massive handbag he calls Moby Purse.
Call this book Moby Memoir. Miller’s story is stuffed with detail, from the smell of dusty taverns to the feel of spiral notebooks to the sound of Cubs games on the radio (which serve as a kind of Greek chorus to this tale of futility). During this time, Miller went from being 215 pounds at 12 to terrifyingly thin, and in the closing chapter he finally clarifies what prompted his self-destruction. In light of that, this book feels like an effort to re-bulk, thick with massive paragraphs and small events rendered as epics. Even watching television is foreboding: “high-dosage anesthesia, reducing sensibility to an itchy insensibility, eyes glued to the screen’s lightless light, a chill cave-gleam.”
Such somber intonations are more resonant once you’ve reached the final page. Miller has laid bare a universe of tween emotions, revealing the trusswork and power grids of his hometown. But before reaching the book’s closing revelations, the reader has to negotiate a lot of layering, a lot of covering up.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Washington, D.C. He blogs at markathitakis.com.