YEARS AFTER THEIR SUICIDES, James Brown's sister and brother were still haunting him day and night. In the opening pages of This River: A Memoir, he writes, "I could be in the middle of a conference with a student at the college where I teach and it'll flash on me, my brother, recoiling from the gunshot that took his life." Or perhaps while driving home from work, he'll see his sister's broken body "on the concrete bank of the Los Angeles River, her limbs twisted in all the wrong directions." He loves them and is sometimes grateful to see them, but at night his siblings' presence awakens him. Afterwards, it's impossible to sleep. He thrashes about in the grip of insomnia, trying to rid his mind of the images that always end up intensifying his life-long depression. Brown's provocative, gut wrenching memoir illuminates a life rich in those elemental passions that govern us — anger, fear of death, the hope for happiness, the cyclical nature of misery and despair, the transformative power of love.
As Brown searches for a remedy for the "dark poem" and "personal demons," what his doctors call "the products of a deeply disturbed mind," he takes us on a journey through a considerably cursed life. From his teenage years and into adulthood, Brown has been an alcoholic, a drug addict — indeed, an abuser of almost any chemical you can name: alcohol, meth, heroin, coke, steroids. It's natural, then, that he sought relief in the form of a pill, albeit a legal one. Brown takes us step by step through the many prescriptions he has tried, explaining their side-effects (sky-rocketing blood pressure, blurry vision, slurred speech, a zombie-like exhaustion, an inability to concentrate). None of it suppresses the flashbacks, the depressing dreams, or the demons. Many nights he wishes he could just die. But he has a wife and children he loves dearly, and so he fights to become "something more than a drunk, someone worth saving."
When writing about his eccentric, self-centered mother — a woman who was once jailed as an arsonist and who, hungry for money, bankrupted her husband, sold their house, and skipped town — Brown suggests why he is who he is, how his past informs his self-destructive behavior. In his mother's later years, there is no one to care for her except for Brown, her last surviving son who is, at best, ambivalent about her. What does a man trying desperately to keep his own sanity do with an ailing parent who has lived her life with no regard for others? It's a moral dilemma described in devastating images of both his mother's failures and the author's own bottomless faults.
Brown is at his best when he hits rewind, returning to crucial moments in childhood like the night his parents threw a party and the ten-year-old Brown sneaked a bottle of Midori, "a thick, syrupy green liquid," into his room. Drinking it, he became "smarter and funnier and stronger and braver and even better looking" before becoming deathly ill and passing out. Moving from initiation to downfall and then to his later years, when, if he didn't quit drinking, he would die, Brown seamlessly weaves together the past and the present, and we are given a sense of how excruciating this voyage of self-discovery must have been. Describing his closeness with and admiration for his father, a man who at sixty-seven was still repairing roofs, pouring concrete driveways, and fixing bathrooms and sewer lines, B...read more