July 2013

Rebecca Silber


I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place by Howard Norman

In his new memoir I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place, Howard Norman writes that he has "always felt a bittersweet foretaste of regret when getting ready to leave certain landscapes." He explains that there is an Inuit folktale "about a man who has been transformed into a goose. As winter fast approaches, he begins to cry out, 'I hate to leave this beautiful place!'" Norman's memoir is divided into five essays -- five "beautiful places" may better describe them. Each piece is written about a different time in his life, and each takes place in a different setting. Norman takes the reader from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to the far reaches of Canada, on to Vermont, Washington, D.C., and California. The essays are disjointed; Norman's memoir almost reads like a collection of short stories. This isn't bothersome. I commend Norman for writing a succinct memoir that focuses on the more captivating periods of his life, rather than turning his entire existence into one narrative. He has basically whittled all of the events of a lifetime into a well-organized package.

The opening essay in I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place is my favorite -- it is reminiscent of a Philip Roth novel. Norman writes of the summer of 1964, when he is fourteen and living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Norman's parents, who had grown up together in a Jewish orphanage, are separated. Norman spends that summer working on a bookmobile, a place where he discovered what would become one of his life's passions. The characters in Norman's life at this time are too amazing to have been made up. He is regularly seduced by his older brother's sexy girlfriend, Paris, "'I was named after the capital of France,' she said." At a daily bookmobile stop, teenage Norman stares at his deadbeat (and supposedly in California) father through the window of Dykstra's Apothecary. He reflects that, "Through the bookmobile window, I saw my father eleven times that summer. The number has no other meaning except that it wasn't more or less. Yet I remember it was eleven." He also learns a bit about life from his sympathetic bookmobile boss, Pinnie Oler, who makes unscheduled bookmobile stops in front of his own home because he and his wife "are trying to make a baby." Norman is able to look back on this particular summer of his life with wit, while still allowing the reader to see his own particular teenage struggles.

The essays continue chronologically through the years of Norman's life. In the second essay Norman discusses his life when in his early twenties. At that time, he was living in Nova Scotia, Canada. He writes extensively about a well-traveled and slightly older artist girlfriend, Mathilde, whom everyone thinks is too good for him. During a pivotal time in their relationship, she dies in a plane crash. Norman, in the aftermath, seeks a confidant in his friend -- an elderly Jewish man, Isador, who works at a hotel. Their exchanges are sweet and familial; Norman refers to Isador as his uncle. Isador willingly offers Norman advice on life and love, as well as impulsive (and expensive) auction buys.

In the remaining essays, Norman is living in the Arctic when he hears news of John Lennon's death on the radio. He mourns along with an Inuit John Lennon cover band. Years later, and in another essay, he and his wife raise their daughter in a farmhouse in Vermont. Norman states that in Vermont "everything I loved most happened most every day, with exceptions." A few of those exceptions occur in the summer of 1990 when he suffers from an extended fever, experiences a drawn out and expensive well-drilling incident, and takes frustratingly humorous calls from his in-trouble-with-the-law brother. Tragedy again strikes Norman and his family in 2003 when poet Reetika Vazirani horrifically takes her young son's life and then her own while housesitting in Norman's Washington D.C. home. The last essay of Norman's memoir deals with that event and the natural solace he sought in California in the time that follows.

Norman has a deep love of birds, a theme that comes up repeatedly throughout I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place. It could be said that it is the birds that tie the essays together, and thus, tie together Norman's life as well. In his writing, Norman does not hesitate to let the reader into the bends of his mind, and for this he is brave. The linkage between his words and his psyche, between the occasional hallucination, or even a simple feeling, are what make this memoir a unique creation. His caustic emotions are laced with humor. He seeks peace in nature always, but even more so during especially troubling times. Norman writes that "A whole world of impudent detours, unbridled perplexities, degrading sorrows, and exacting joys can befall a person in a single season, not to mention a lifetime." He has taken the accidents and happenstances of his life and turned them into his own work of art. In reading I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place, the reader gains a strong sense of Norman's intelligence, and of his being.

Norman writes, "There are certain incidents that will not allow you to forget them. The Japanese have a saying, 'Rain enters your diary.' It refers to the melancholy that is forever part of your personal history. Later, you find the diary and read it and rediscover how you were experiencing life. The diary remembers for you." I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place marks these moments. Norman doesn't withhold his emotions in retelling his own personal history. The naked melancholy leaves Norman exposed, but makes him human. I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place tells the story of a strong, adventurous man with a sense of humor. Norman strolls through his life, never allowing himself to get stuck for too long along the way. As Norman's favorite Robert Frost line from "A Servant to Servants" goes, "the best way out is always through."

I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place by Howard Norman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0547385426
208 pages