Monday, January 4, 2010

Middle Shelf Selection: Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.
I like stories whose protagonists cruise the galaxy in sleek starships or thwart devious djinns with only their wits or scavenge for weapons in order to fend off the angry undead. Genre fiction has made me burn many a quart of midnight oil. Literary works haven't, and I've especially never been drawn by personal memoirs. Accounts of failed careers, broken relationships and serious substance abuse have always felt self-serving to me and usually strained in the telling. At least that's what I thought before reading Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle, a memoir which exemplifies that fundamental rule of storytelling: Show and don't tell.
I was on fire.

It's my earliest memory. I was three years old, and we were living in a trailer park in a southern Arizona town whose name I never knew. I was standing on a chair in front of the stove, wearing a pink dress my grandmother had bought for me. Pink was my favorite color.
The members of the Walls family aren't stupid. Patriarch Rex Walls loves studying higher math and dabbling in electrical engineering. His wife, Rose Mary, adores great art and all of Shakespeare's plays. No, lack of intelligence doesn't cause their problems. It has more to do with how Rex immediately disappears into the nearest bar whenever he gets a little money, or how Rose Mary would rather sketch a wind-blown Joshua tree or work on her collection of pithy sayings than ensure there's food in the fridge. So from earliest childhood, the four Walls children -- Lori, Brian, Jeannette and Maureen -- live as nomads on the underside of America, surviving any way in which they can. And as the years roll on, they begin to realize that any hope of the family's survival falls directly to them.
A few days later, when I had been at the hospital for about six weeks, Dad appeared alone in the doorway of my room. He told me we were going to check out, Rex Walls-style.

"Are you sure this is okay?" I asked.

"You just trust your old man," Dad said.

He unhooked my right arm from the sling over my head. As he held me close, I breathed in his familiar smell of Vitalis, whiskey, and cigarette smoke. It reminded me of home.
With such grim subject matter, The Glass Castle could easily turn maudlin or weepy. What holds it together is how Jeannette Walls offers precious little commentary on the proceedings. She doesn't tell you how terrible it is that her father met with a prostitute while her brother was in an adjoining room or how her mother would regularly feed them entirely on popcorn for days at a time. She doesn't have to; the occurrences serve as their own commentary. Her use of symbolism is also masterful, inserting seemingly off-hand accounts that gradually accrete significance through later allusions. In fact, the technique appears in the title itself, the Glass Castle being a huge, solar-powered, transparent house that Rex says will one day stand proud and self-sufficient in the middle of the desert -- a house that only ever gets built on paper. It's also a harrowing, heartbreaking and highly recommended book, no matter what sort of stories you love.


Anonymous said...

I've been wanting to read this for a long time, but I tend to hunt through reviews of it to find that elusive quality of "yes its a must read, because of THIS..."

finally your review did that for me. I'm putting it on my TBR 2010!


Loren Eaton said...

Yay! Always love to sell someone on a good book. Be sure to come back and tell us what you think. It's a fascinating read.

Anonymous said...

I'm appalled, Loren. Every time I start thinning my four overladen bookshelves, I think, "Loren just has /one/ shelf." Glass Castle didn't even make it on my shelves - I swapped it. I think you must still be infant-sleep-deprived for liking this one.

I know, I know, to each his own. I'm just saying.

Loren Eaton said...

It is something of a grim book, true. But I'm entranced by how Walls tells the story. Amazingly done, even if I want to shake her parents every time I read it.

If it makes you feel any better, The Middle Shelf has overflowed into the top and bottom shelves after this Christmas. I have some eBaying to do.