Gail Caldwell’s Memoirs: Eloquent Profiles in Courage and Humility
By Carl Blumenthal
Whatever Issues She Had Did Not Get the Best of Her
New Life, No Instructions (2014): “I wonder about the pilgrims at Lourdes and Fatima, the ones who felt the glow and realized they could walk….The real task must have come later, after they absorbed what had happened: miracle, new life, no instructions.”
Let’s Take the Long Way Home (2010): “It’s an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died so we shared that, too.”
A Strong West Wind (2006): “The real beauty of the question—how do we become who we are?—is that by the time we are old enough to ask it, to understand its infinite breadth, it is too late to do much about it. That is not the sorrow of hindsight, but its music: That is what grants us a bearable past.”
Gail Caldwell, the author of these three memoirs, is a master of the “mot juste,” French for the perfect word or phrase. She plucks at the reader’s heart strings, not just through the “shock and awe” of her life story, which contains enough turning points to leave ordinary mortals gasping for breath, but also with a thoughtfulness which is a saving grace.
Born in 1951 and raised in Amarillo, Texas, she immerses herself in the counter-culture of Austin, in and out of the university, then lights out for Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she stakes her claim as a writer, including more than 20 years as chief book critic for The Boston Globe, winning the Pulitzer Prize for literary criticism in 2001.
Coming from a family with deep roots in the Panhandle, Gail Caldwell insists the alcoholism, depression, and suicide, which stopped several of her relatives in their tracks, were as much a matter of geography as genes. Thus she begins the first chapter of her first memoir, A Strong West Wind: “Poised at the heart of so much land, Amarillo, too, sprawled in a sort of languid disregard, as though territorial hegemony might make up for all that loneliness.”
However, time or timing is an equal factor in determining her fate. At the end of the polio epidemic, she contracts a mild form as a toddler. Her mother motivates Gail to walk by performing beside her the necessary leg-strengthening exercises, which are repeated for hours on end.
Reaching this milestone instills a sometimes naïve expectation that loved ones will go the extra mile to help when she’s down, but, when they don’t, it’s better to find the gumption to carry on alone rather than compromise. Such whipsawing eventually disproves that “love is a many-splendored thing,” (the title of a popular 1955 film starring heart throbs William Holden and Jennifer Jones).
Thus, to compensate for this limitation as a child, Gail becomes, on the one hand, a bookworm, and, on the other, a swimmer; maintaining balance over both imaginary and real depths. Yet over the years her hip deteriorates from the residual limp, requiring at age 60 a replacement as complicated as repairing a truck’s broken axle in the middle of a traffic jam.
Once her own biological clock ticks past 50 years, Gail appreciates the support her parents provided growing up, even if her rebellion in the 60’s and 70’s, including bad boyfriends, a terrible Vietnam War, and the fierceness of early feminism, butted against that support as if it were a police barrier.
A Strong West Wind doubles back in its last half to the stories and jokes of survival her dad shared with her as a child. Surely these inspired her writing. Nevertheless, as a World War II vet, he often appeared unsympathetic when she strayed from the fold. A reconciliation occurs as their respective ambitions diminish with age.
Only later, in New Life, No Instructions, after the recovery from hip surgery gains Gail new mobility, does she recall how much her working mom surreptitiously encouraged Gail’s independence and acted as indomitably in her own way as her father.
By inserting their reappearances outside the narratives’ chronology, Caldwell recognizes the long shadow they cast over her. While Gail cites Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel as seminal to her youthful romanticism, his subsequent, more plaintive You Can’t Go Home Again better epitomizes the writer’s nomadic plight.
By 1981 Caldwell flees home with an abandon fueled by the elixir of liquor. Her preferred drink is Jack Daniels, which she swills from a bottle like mother’s milk. Even in cozy Cambridge with all her success, the emptiness of the Texas plains seems to extend to her doorstep. She finally trades alcoholism for AA and therapy after falling and breaking her ribs in a stupor.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home chronicles Caldwell’s friendship with Caroline Knapp, the celebrated author of Drinking: A Love Story and Appetites: Why Women Want, about her alcoholism and anorexia, respectively. By the time they meet, both are sober and, in Knapp’s case, slim but apparently healthy.
They bond over walking their dogs. Caroline teaches Gail how to row on Boston’s Charles River and Gail instructs Caroline in swimming New Hampshire’s lakes where they vacation. These mutual strengths (and occasional sore spots) form the basis of a camaraderie legendary in the literary circles around Harvard Yard.
When Caroline dies suddenly of lung cancer at 42, after smoking throughout adulthood—an addiction which seems socially the lesser of three evils when compared with drinking or fasting herself to death—Gail experiences the greatest of many losses in her life.
She leads the reader through the wearying process of grief with exacting details like those describing her hip operation and training her dogs. After one Samoyed sled dog dies she adopts another and both Let’s Take the Long Way Home and New Life, No Instructions are as much canine as human love stories.
How to summarize a writer whose prose is as brilliant and dense as diamonds? Gail Caldwell exhorts us to lead a life of compassion for ourselves and others, during which whatever we perceive as our failings doesn’t impede our instincts for survival.
That she omits from these memoirs her long and successful career as a writer demonstrates the advice invariably offered in non-fiction classes—it’s just as important to show what counts as to avoid telling too much. Given she’s a self-taught author, Caldwell implies achieving our greatest dream is not always cracked up to what it’s supposed to be.
In the big scheme of things, all that fracked Texas oil may lower the price of her weathered Volvo’s gas, but in the long run we will have to transform the simple pleasures of sun, wind, and water into the energy needed to get us to that big rest stop in the sky. Or as JK Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, said in her commencement speech at Harvard in 2008, quoting the Roman philosopher Seneca, “As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”