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Donald Anderson has done what most writers and would-be writers wish they had done: kept all the snippets and notes and observations of a lifetime — some funny, some profound, some more developed than others, some mere grace notes — and put them together in what he calls “a camouflaged memoir,” his new book from University of Iowa Press, Gathering Noise from My Life.
That is not to say that any of the rest of us could have accomplished what Anderson does here with our own collection of fragments. Reading his book, I was reminded of essayist Philip Lopate’s observation that the best creative nonfiction writers demonstrate a fascinating mind at work on the page. Anderson’s mind, displayed in list upon list across a lifetime — with mordant humor, deadpan weariness, and uncommon reverence — is a delight to encounter, a mind you want to compare notes with.
A former Air Force officer and director of creative writing at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Anderson’s previous books include the 2001 John Simmons Award-winning short story collection, Fire Road, and a number of important anthologies of the literature of war. Since 1989, he has edited the international journal of the humanities, War, Literature & the Arts.
Born in Butte, Montana, Anderson is a dedicated chronicler of the Rocky Mountain West.
Gathering Notes from My Life moves more or less chronologically from post-World War II to now, but one of the distinct pleasures of this book is that a reader can read it backward or open it to the middle and just chew a bit on a section. The total impact of these seemingly random fragments arrives gradually and a number of linked themes arise: war and destruction, fathers and sons, illness and mortality, religion and race, love of language and admiration for its possibilities.
Eight pages of works cited in the back show the eclectic range of the author’s inspirations, from Joni Mitchell to Mark Twain, Muhammad Ali to Woody Allen to Guy Noir.
Newspapers, TV, restaurant menus, roadside signs, coffee shops, and chance encounters provide sounds and subject matter, and life experience is quietly woven into the mix, a steady hum in a whirlwind.
We can gather and reconstruct a basic outline of Anderson’s life — childhood in Montana and Utah, a father and grandfather who were boxers, Mormon missionary time in France and Belgium, military stints in California and Alaska, two marriages, kids, an academic career in Colorado — but that’s not really the point in this camouflaged memoir. The book is more a biography of the way the author thinks and sees than what he has done.
A litany of data about nuclear weapons and war injuries is juxtaposed against the names of generals — the cadence of war and destruction over the last century.
Among those dark reflections, rays of light from literature and daily life.
Here’s Anderson on mortality:
“When you purchase your third clothes dryer, you’ve probably purchased your last. Think about it.” (p. 202)
On existential matters:
“The reliable thing about a road is that its decisions have been made.” (p. 3) or “What is walking but controlled falling?” (p. 197)
Or better yet:
“One Notion of Hell: You’re duct-taped to a tree, forced to listen to Debbie Boone sing ‘You Light Up My Life’ forever.” (p. 202)
Throughout the book, single words or phrases that evoke beauty but mean something else altogether, like:
Listen to Anderson’s carefully chosen list, “Words That Feel Like What They Are: bougainvillea, wavy, serene, pontificate, rococo, whipsaw, gibberish, bigwig, haircut, rambunctious, killjoy, palaver, coagulate, chatter, heartbeat, springboard, lightbulb, warehouse, bicker, potlicker, piggyback, flummoxed, unruly, carefree, layaway, gravestone, unearth, unspent, unsalved, windfall, kerfuffle, blowhard, lickspittle, lollygag, dilly-dally, ruckus, mouthwash, wordsmith, nippy, nerve-wracking, turnkey, sky-scraper, butt-dial …” (p. 187)
The wisdom of Anderson’s literary heroes animate the book, from Tim O’Brien to Updike, Yeats, Shakespeare and Robert Penn Warren, as do snippets of pop culture inspiration, like the entry “How to Title a Country Song,” a list of the best, from the obvious — “Drop Kick Me Jesus through the Goal Posts of Life” — to the not-so-obvious — “How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?” — to the sublime: “Still Miss You Baby, but My Aim’s Gettin’ Better.”
Anderson asks if memory is really what happened or how we feel about what happened, and we get a powerful dose of both in this curious and unconventional collection of fragments that ultimately add up to a well-considered life.
* * *
Books by By Donald Anderson
Gathering Noise from My Life: A Camouflaged Memoir by Donald Anderson (University of Iowa Press, 2012) www.uiowapress.org
Aftermath: An Anthology of Post-Vietnam Fiction (Henry Holt, 1995)
When War Becomes Personal: Soldiers’ Accounts from the Civil War to Iraq (University of Iowa Press, 2008)byDonald Anderson
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.