Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2017. 139 pages. $19.95.
“Exit, pursued by a bear,” Shakespeare’s preposterous stage direction from The Winter’s Tale, deliberately emphasizes the fictive. The interesting fact of John W. Evans’s new memoir, on the other hand, is that a bear killed this writer’s young wife while the writer witnessed the attack from a distance. He begs this fact; protects it, as it were. And the reason isn’t that he has published poems and an earlier memoir about the tragedy or that it is too painful to relate, but that he fears that the melodrama of this violent death will distract readers from the complexity of his response. His psyche and heart. His grief. His guilt as a survivor. His search for fault and for justice. And his moving forward, finally.
A reader unacquainted with Evans’s earlier work enters his account with some confusion. The writing has a reflective, Jamesian density and employs little direct dialogue. This is not a dramatic memoir like Frank Conroy’s or Tobias Wolff’s; instead, it is abstractly analytical, and Evans’s penchant for abstraction is primarily leavened by sensory descriptions of place: Indiana, Chicago, Montana, Florida, Tahoe, San Francisco, Bucharest, and Giverny (Fr.). He begins his story the year after his wife Katie’s death, sharing his surprise at age thirty-one by his new love with Cait, a long-time friend. He still mourns Katie, but sets out to describe his new marriage with Cait, their settling in California near her family, and the births of their three sons; and gradually manages to imagine and accept Katie’s blessing. The book’s title comes from a line addressed to Katie’s memory: “Shouldn’t I still wish you hadn’t died?”
We are left guessing about the circumstances of Katie’s death until well into the book. Evans states, “I will never again be that man who watched Katie die and was unable to stop it,” and begins a section where he suddenly dwells on the fact and idea of bears. Remarried at this point, he meets a man boasting of scars from a bear attack at Lake Tahoe, and thinks to himself: “My bear . . . would kill your bear. My bear was ten times as big as yours . . . and it killed my fucking wife.” What, how, when, where? The chapter cites other instances of his bear phobia, which the new wife, Cait, treats sympathetically as a kind of PTSD. He views the past itself as “ursine.” Bears in zoos “are, finally, everything except a bear.” He has panic attacks in the Tahoe woods. He fears that his new extended family (and the reader) will consider his obsession as “the most compelling fact of my life,” while for Evans the most compelling facts are his survival and search for meaning.
He seeks talk therapy. He needs Cait’s understanding. Cait first met him with Katie in the Peace Corps: “Cait had come to our wedding and, three years later, to Katie’s funeral.” She respects Katie’s memory and his loss. They share a long-distance friendship. On a brief visit, he stays in her Bay Area apartment and learns from her roommate that Cait is attracted to him. He reciprocates, but they move slowly into romance. “Cait didn’t want to be my consolation prize, and certainly not my rebound.” On returning to Indiana, where he’d been staying with Katie’s family, he ignores his therapist’s advice and decides to relocate to California. Cait meets him halfway, in Montana, and they travel together through the “bad lands” of his fears. They have chemistry as lovers. “I could say the things I wanted in a life now,” he discovers. They marry and settle in the Bay Area, where her centenarian grandfather is the retired professor and former dean of a university (perhaps Stanford) and keeps a big house. They move into its basement. Evans teaches and writes. They have their three boys over time and move to a condo nearby.
Settling down and parenting prove rich pleasures, if not alleviations to his grief. He addresses a splendid chapter to his oldest son, Walt, reminiscing about his babyhood in the “Big House . . . our family commune, our multi-generational compound.” He rehearses their closeness, but underscores a larger point concerning memory and story. He fears that “I will lose your entire childhood in such blunders of circumstance and time,” and also that his telling of Walt’s past will only animate rather than reveal. “What else can a history do,” he asks, “except work these few places where the sense seems most likely?” The chapter ends with a poignant projection of how Walt might one day tell this past, centering on the very old professor who lived upstairs and “the little boy who sat with him and made everyone happy.”
Hard-earned revelations appear in the final sections through the device of imaginary address to Katie as well. Evans admits that his “story” of their past is selfish and selective. They had been on Peace Corps assignment to Romania: “The night before you died, we went to the international movie theater . . . We had dinner at the cafe . . . I opened my birthday presents a week early so that we wouldn’t have to take them with us on our train ride into the mountains. We were at the beginning of our journey, just. . . . ” While they hiked in the mountains, the bear attacked. “If you speak at all when I imagine you, you say things like, ‘You could not have saved my life. . . . ’” He informs her, “I am thirty-nine years old now, remarried, a father. I live in California. I have written about you, and little else, for nine years. . . . ” He asks whether she’s happy for him. And even beyond this: “Could we have had any of this together, ever, us?” If she hadn’t died, he would never have had Cait and his sons; and yet, he realizes, he was happy before she died, too. What he’s learned on his pulses is that loss can lead both to pain and to happiness.
In the last chapter, he confesses that when his mother calls
and asks again when I will write the happy book, the one about the wife and kids and the incomprehensible loss, and California, with the happy ending and all the silence of beautiful things happening outside of a need to chronicle, analyze, and share them with anyone. I want to say that I’m writing that book—I’m always trying to write that book, Mom—but what I say instead is that that book may never exist. I may never write that book.
He hates explaining how Katie died: “words that once cast spells—Katie, grief, bears, wife, absence—now move like legislation between the head and heart, withstanding debates, inviting revisions and expansions almost as quickly as I can say them.” Meanwhile, people hear different meanings in his accounts:
That life is short. We must enjoy what we can. Bad things are going to happen . . . Such sentiments are so obvious as to seem near clichés. They come from the other side of a consensus, however contemporary, about how and why death happens: that death is not exceptional, it is not experienced collectively, it does not shape a continuing life, the familiarity it invokes is neither healing nor reassuring. When I say your name, I do not mean to incant to the living. But I listen carefully to the questions that follow. Beyond what we tell each other, or say we mean and feel, the questions make a path between lives too. They let me know how much anyone really wants to know or understand.
The richness of his perceptions, his intelligence and his honesty are arresting. His probing of the relation between experience and history is kindred to Tim O’Brien’s, say. But most of all, this haunted and haunting memoir recalls Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel, The Pawnbroker (1962), the story of another widower’s grief, and one of its closing lines: “he took the pain of it, if not happily, like a martyr, at least willingly, like an heir.”