August 2008

Aysha Somasundaram

nonfiction

Leaning with Intent to Fall: A Memoir by Ethan Clark

Memoir writing rightly or wrongly always strikes me as a peculiarly egocentric undertaking to some extent -- to seize a public platform to expound on personal experiences -- one that signals a slightly indecent self-obsession. It’s not a character flaw per se, its defenders would argue, especially when there is a good story anchoring the narrative. Ethan Clark’s Leaning with Intent to Fall is one of those rare rule-breaking, unselfconsciously fringe ventures that feels less like a memoir than the self-indulgent, irreverent ramblings of tall tale spinning (likely inebriated) eccentric you might encounter in a train station or a tavern. The fact each chapter reads like a freestanding vignette adds to this feeling of a storyteller on a rampage.

What makes it Leaning with Intent to Fall special in a sense is Clark’s perspective as a young, bright, artistic man with a string of minimum wage jobs and an appetite for counterculture. Hitchhiking and, at times, flirting with near homelessness, a series of dead end, life-sucking menial tasks, drunken philosophizing and leading a desperate existence may not be rare occurrences, but Clark is the rare union of the person who both chose to live such a life and write about it with humor and insight. He animates, enlivens, humanizes and describes a cross section and slice of humanity that is easily dismissed or caricatured. 

Like it or not, it hard not to see yourself or your parents and friends unflatteringly exposed somewhere in Leaning with Intent to Fall. A perfect example is Clark’s incisive observations on hitchhiking. If you are not a hitchhiker, you have invariably been on of the archetypes damningly described by Clark:

And there are several types of those people who won’t pick you up, and you should get to know them well. There are those who give you the innocent, "I would if I could!" shrug. There’s the Frantic Pointing, meant to indicate, "I’m only going to the next exit!" These are annoying, but at least well-meaning. On the other end of the spectrum are the Antagonistic Drivers, the ones who give you the finger, screaming "Get a car, faggot!" (because, apparently, carelessness equals homosexuality)... Then there are the Ignorers, the ones who suddenly upon spotting you, become extremely interested in the scenery on the opposite side of their car, or with their CD booklets. In some ways, these people make me angrier than the straight up assholes, because they are the ones too cowardly to look into the face of this fellow human that they know they are leaving stranded.

Another satisfying element of Leaning with Intent to Fall is the loving, but unsentimental description of New Orleans: “The next time I would see the city it was after it had just gotten its ass kicked by Hurricane Katrina, and everything would be different. At that time, though, standing in Lee’s tower, it was me that had had my ass kicked by the city. By every failed friendship and love affair, every poor tipping job, every tire popping pothole. But I hadn’t had it as bad as some… But I was going to miss shaking things up in a way that can only happen in that city. I was going to miss fucking with the south, fucking with the old south.” The city looms like an urban King Kong -- beautiful, savage, misunderstood and violent. 

Leaning with Intent to Fall does not possess universal appeal; it is likelier to appeal to a youthful, noir sensibility with an appreciation for the slightly macabre, grotesque and marginal than anyone else. But Clark’s artful turns of phrase sometimes does transcend this narrow scope and audience. Clark skillfully renders the architectural salvage place where he briefly works: “Running the place was a bit like trying to maintain order in the boiler room at the tower of Babel. The days consisted of de-nailing trim, attempting not to get tetanus, running after wealthy slumlords who were shoplifting, literally watching paint dry, and putting up with manic ramblings that streamed forth from the mouth of the out-of-work actor.”

Leaning with Intent to Fall: A Memoir by Ethan Clark
Garret County Press
ISBN- 978-1-891053-04-7
186 pages