Bob Tarte v. Lisa Crystal Carver: Ducks Punked.
I wanted so badly to write a review contrasting two memoirs without dragging James Frey into it. Instead, I've been sitting here trying so hard to come up with something else to begin with that I'm working my way right around to a strong case of writer's block. So: Frey.
I was watching The Viewlast week, ensnared by the spooky horror that Star Jones has become. (Remember how pretty she was when she was fat? She looked like a self-satisfied Persian cat, all softness and velvet and large, intense almond eyes. Now, Skeletor.) The ladies were discussing the Frey debacle and Oprah's odd, impassioned defense of him. Joy Behar, who is your go-to person for common sense on that show, rebutted Oprah by pointing out that if we agree that it is acceptable for memoirs to be made up out of whole cloth and presented as truth, then it calls into question the truthfulness of such memoirists as
Elie Wiesel, who documented his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald in his international 1958 classic Night. If you click on the link, you'll see it leads to Oprah's book club, who has selected Night as their next book. Behar made two points, the first being that now Oprah has to decide what is truth and what isn't, and which memoir she will take as fact and which she won't, and why. If she fails to do this, she opens the door to Behar's second point, which is that Holocaust-deniers are now free to use Frey's book and Oprah's admission that adherence to the truth in one's life story is irrelevant to dismiss the bleakest years of Wiesel's life as fictitious.
I would also add that the power of the memoir is its truth. Any good book pulls you into its life, allowing you to examine it from the inside out, seeing and hearing and feeling what the author wants you to. A good book releases you with an added dimension to your own character, a new perspective. Additionally, a good memoir adds the extra impact that the events are true, that this actually happened, that you, the reader, walked in the shoes of actual human beings. When Wiesel is forced into a cattle car with hundreds of suffering Jews, the reader feels his claustrophobic despair, and closes the book with the resolution that history must never be allowed to repeat this lesson in human sorrow. The power of the memoir is that it does not let you off the hook. You should not be able to shrug off a memoir with an "It's only fiction." It is for that reason that Frey's fabricated life story is a betrayal, not only to himself and his readers, but to all writers who tell their truths as closely as they can.
The two memoirs that I've recently finished, Bob Tarte's Enslaved By Ducks, and Lisa Crystal Carver's Drugs Are Nice, are memoirs that seem to be as close to the truth as one can hope for, Carver's because one can read the back issues of her classic personal 'zine Rollerderby as prep notes for the novel, and Bob Tarte because while one can imagine making up a life spent spraying scratch feed around the backyard in between reading Reader's Digest and watching Wheel of Fortune, one can not imagine the purpose in doing so.
Reading the books side by side was an interesting contrast. Both Carver and Tarte are skilled at drawing the reader into their lives and living beside them as they do whatever it is they do. Tarte's life was similar to sitting inside an idling wood-panelled station wagon with a Jesus fish stuck to the back bumper, while Carver's was like riding shotgun on the vomit-smeared passenger seat of a shockless, brakeless Gremlin, screaming down a back road filled with pot holes at seventy miles an hour, blowing past all the "Bridge Out Ahead" warning signs as she asks you if you want her to turn out the headlights.
Back at the duck farm, Tarte sits at the kitchen table with a parrot on his head and a duck by his feet, while his wife looks for her Bible before she heads out to church. "More tea?" he offers. "It's decaf peppermint. I used to drink Earl Grey, but that was just too racy for me."
These distinct characteristics each irritated me at times, Tarte because his life was too slow, and Carver because hers was too fast. (And their porrige was too hot and then too cold! And their beds were too hard and too soft!)
Enslaved By Ducks is a compilation of essays, detailing how Tarte and his wife, Linda, slowly acquired a large menagarie of birds, cats, and rabbits. Each of the 15 chapters in the book tells the story of each of their pets and their personalities, their various illnesses, what they ate, and their relationship to their owners. Beyond that, nothing much happens. Tarte's book is what James Herriot's classic All Creatures Great and Small would be if you took away all the drunken binges and rude customers. This isn't precisely a terrible condemnation, because Tarte has the same gentle wit and self-deprecating charm as Herriot, making him very readable. And although I am not by any means a bird-lover, I have to admit he is the owner of what is hands-down the world's cutest duck. Ultimately, however, the duck and its cute orange feet were not enough to keep me there on the farm, and I was eager to hop into Carver's Gremlin and go along for the ride.
Drugs Are Nice is being hailed as the definitive document of the post-punk era, written by one of the leaders of the anarchic movement, Lisa Crystal Carver. Creator of Suckdog, a band created by Carver and her high school BFF Rachel to impress the notorious GG Allin.
In fact, it would be easy to say the entire memoir chronicles Carver's daddy issues, as she leaves her sociopathic drug-dealer father and careens from GG Allin to her husband, French performance artist Jean-Louis Costes, to her personal Mount Everest, Satanic priest and alleged Nazi Boyd Rice, ramping up her crazed, self-destructive antics accordingly. But Drugs Are Nice tells much more than that. Amidst Carver's relentless quest to cause herself enough pain to dull the numbness inside her, she manages to consistently create highly-praised works of art along the way, from the famous Suckdog circus to her combative, loopy performance art she staged with Costes, to being credited with creating the genre of the personal 'zine (in Drugs Are Nice, she disavows her hand in creating the popular artform, attributing its creation instead to Pagan Kennedy.)
Her relationships with the destructive, often-abusive men in her life are described in a bemused, detached manner, like Jane Goodall taking notes on nearby warmongering chimpanzees who might rip her arm off if the mood strikes them. While she clearly loves her odd French husband Costes, she also clearly fears Boyd Rice. In an issue of Rollerderby, she includes a letter from Costes, written while he was in Guyana, that seems to sum him up perfectly.
Late again. Why? Three days before to leave the forest by plane, I was working in a garden in the forest, burning some dead bamboos. This small fire in the garden became suddenly huge and then all forest around the village was soon burning!!! I have burnt the Amazonia jungle. Normally it's impossible to burn this forest if you don't cut it first and wait a month at least, so that the wood can dry before to burn but this year there is a drought in Amazonia (it didn't happened for 30 years) and the impossible happened: I burnt the forest?! Fuck. Of course, I was in a lot of troubles there: the major Guiana newspaper title was: "The heart of Guiana is burning!" I was questionned by police and administrators of the forest, independantists hated me: "A white came to burn our land"; of course ecologists too hated me (to make it worst the fire spread in a protected area considered as very important for flora and fauna). I was feeling so guilty; it was a nightmare; nights and days, the fire was making a terrible noise all around like millions of machine guns. I thought I was going to become crazy; it looked like it would never stop. I missed my plane again because authorities wanted to question me, but they could not charge me because to work agriculture using fire is normal and traditionnal there (since the forest is suppose to be impossible to burn...).
I fly to USA.
See you in a few days.
An amused Carver notes afterwards, "For most people, burning down a rain forest would be the event in their life, the horrible thing to look back on and tell the grandkids about. For J-L, it's just what happened that week."
Although he is both unpredictable and unreliable, with a volitile temper and extremely questionable ideas about performance art, he nonetheless seems to provide Carver with no small amount of joy.
It is with Boyd Rice that Carver reaches her turning point. When their son, Wolfgang, is born with a chromesomal deletion, Carver must choose between self-destruction and son-preservation. She makes what most of us, Carver included, would agree is the right choice, but Carver bravely chronicles that the sacrifice of self on the alter of motherhood is not without pain and loneliness, and nostalgia for the life she used to live, danger and all. Unlike the happy-go-lucky flavor of Rollerderby, Drugs Are Nice reveals Carver's loneliness and depression, and her fear of being suddenly thrust into an idling wood-panelled station wagon. She wonders if this is it for her, if she is stuck in New Hampshire forever with her seriously ill child, while the men she clung to whirl away into the sky, free, while she is anchored below.
Carver need not worry, however, as she was set upon by members of the Church of Satan at one of her book signings in California and was beaten by them for publishing salacious rumors about Satanic church founder Anton LeVey. Carver discusses the situation on her blog, and she is again attacked by Satanists. (A little known fact about Satanists: they appear to have an unholy alliance with the ALLCAPS key.)
In the end, it must be comforting to Carver to end her thirties with an asskicking from Szandora LeVey. How many suburban moms in their late thirties can make that claim? Rest easy, Carver.
Enslaved by Ducks
by Bob Tarte
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2003
Hardcover, 308 pages
Drugs Are Nice
by Lisa Crystal Carver
Soft Skull Press, 2005
Soft Cover, 250 pages