A writer strives to piece together his 'Book of Self'
Few writers have lived exciting lives with Jack London-type adventures. And in Floyd Skloot's latest memoir, The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer's Life, one is given a quiet slice of Americana that is neither extraordinary nor shaped with lyri
The Shaping of a Writer's Life
By Floyd Skloot
University of Nebraska Press. 252 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Jessica Schneider
Few writers have lived exciting lives with Jack London-type adventures. And in Floyd Skloot's latest memoir,
The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer's Life
, one is given a quiet slice of Americana that is neither extraordinary nor shaped with lyrical passion. But
is much more solidly written than most writers' memoirs - I mean the standard "writer's life" written by yet another upper-middle-class suburbanite complaining about the woes of suburbia. I found it a relief to read here about a real person with real-life issues, rather than the cliched hyperbole found in most writers of the ills (alcoholism, self-indulgence, drug use, etc.) they have brought on themselves.
The title refers to an old-fashioned Zenith television screen - an image from his youth, a youth that "seemed to be letting go of its dreams." The book is well structured, divided into three parts. "Part One: Home Economics for Halfbacks," deals with the author's childhood, growing up as a baby boomer in Brooklyn, coupled with his love for baseball. Readers are given insights into Skloot's character, as a boy who came to accept his own limits. By 15, he admits, he knew he did not have what it took to be a professional baseball player. At only 5-foot-4, "I was too small. Besides, in the rare moments of honesty about my baseball talent, I could admit that I wasn't good enough."
It's this kind of self-awareness that is lacking in so many writers' memoirs. One has to wonder why so many today cannot realize the same for themselves. This brings us to "Part Two: When the Clock Stops." In this section, Skloot discusses the impact several writers had on him, notably William Faulkner and Thomas Hardy. Great writing is what "could stop time and thereby make time come to life, transporting the reader, as it must have transported the writer, into another dimension."
His examinations of Hardy elicit an examination of himself, and he sees that Hardy was a novelist of hits and also "mid-career messes." In his novel
The Trumpet Major
, for example, Hardy was merely "going through the motions." Seeing this teaches Skloot something: "I was learning about the consequences when a writer creates primarily by will, without passion or full engagement."
Since Skloot himself is a writer, and this is a memoir about a writer's life, it would have benefited from more digression on what exactly made Hardy's "mid-career messes" just that, and how those same patterns pertain to today's writing world.
The preface notes that in 1988, Skloot suffered from a virus that affected his brain. Some of the resulting "neurological tatters" included an inability to write for a number of years, a struggle to read even the most simple sentences, and also a difficulty in abstract reasoning. Yet none of this seems to have affected the crafting of the book itself. The prose reads straightforwardly, and Skloot seems to adopt a take-me-for-what-I-am mentality that makes him come across as a likable guy. This matter-of-fact approach and lack of self-pity not only benefit his character, but help shape the narrative as well.
"Part Three: Travels in Lavender and Light," centers on Skloot's mother, who is suffering from dementia that has caused her to "forget her own forgetting." He compares her memory loss and the results of his brain virus - because his own memory remains scattered, he must rely on the memories of others to fill in the blanks. Other people "had sentences, paragraphs, sometimes whole pages of my Book of Self." Ironically, memory loss made him "part of something larger" - an interesting concept that deserved further probing.
Skloot fans will likely enjoy this book, but first-timers will crave something deeper, more insight into writing as an art, rather than a sequential treatment of writers Skloot likes. Therefore, the book is not a must-have. Even if sometimes too much at surface level, however,
The Wink of the Zenith
provides momentary slices of mind, quiet slices of dream.