ONE OF THE STRANGE and amazing things about being an essayist and reading essays both for work and for pleasure is that you can develop the erroneous feeling that you and a favorite essayist are friends — that you actually know each other in the “real world.” My first experience with this feeling came when I was teaching in a summer program for gifted children at Skidmore College at the same time that Phillip Lopate was teaching in a summer creative writing workshop on the same campus. I kept seeing him in the dining hall or in common areas and had to remind myself that, in fact, I should not say hello or inquire about his daughter — that doing so would not only be awkward, but probably downright creepy. I don’t know Phillip Lopate. I’ve just read Portrait of My Body and Bachelorhood dozens of times.
I don’t have these feelings of familiarity with all of the essayists I read, but I do have it with Steven Church, whose latest essay collection Ultrasonic will soon be released by Lavender Ink.
Church’s first book in 2005, The Guinness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record, was something of a mixed bag. The essays are organized around the strange, driven people whose photographs and dubious accomplishments are chronicled in those fat tomes that were so popular with a certain type of weird kid in the early 1980s. I was one of those weird kids, which might explain, in part, why the work speaks to me. Also because, when he connects the lives of those bizarre world-record holders to his own sense of freakish alienation, the book is something else: thoughtful, funny, unexpectedly dark. At the same time, there are chapters that feel like connective tissue, linking one awesome essay to another but not doing much on their own. In the end, as I finished reading, I thought, “I wish that had been a collection of essays.”
Four years later, Church granted that wish, releasing Theoretical Killings: Essays & Accidents and The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst within months of each other. After I read Theoretical Killings — a philosophical postmodern collage of ideas and imaginings — I told my wife, “You’ve got to read this.” Then I read The Day After the Day After — a memoir of growing up at the end of the Cold War when even children’s entertainment was somehow preoccupied with nuclear annihilation — and told her, before she’d even opened the other, “No, never mind — read this one first.”
You wouldn’t necessarily think that the same author wrote both books. It’s tempting to say that Theoretical Killings was written by Church the teacher and philosopher, while The Day After the Day After was written by Church the pop culture obsessive. But that would be doing both books a disservice, making the former sound less fun and the latter less reflective and passionate than each of them are.
The danger of writing about popular culture is that it’s very easy to mistake remembering the stuff of one’s youth for actually thinking or having something worthwhile to say about it. You can maybe trick some readers into believing you’re clever when you make a winking reference to “The Super Bowl Shuffle” or Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos, but you can’t fool the smart ones, some of whom will assume that any treatment of such subjects is a waste of their time.
I can assure you, however — as proved by Ultrasonic, his new collection — that reading Steven Church’s books is anything but.
Much of Church’s writing up until this point has been focused on the past. Both The Guinness Book of Me and The Day After the Day After are, in a sense, tales of coming of age. While the former would seem, on its surface, to concern itself with those random world records and the people who hold them, it is actually a haunting reflection on the emptiness Church feels in the wake of his younger brother’s sudden, unexpected death. And the latter may initially strike some readers as a grown man’s memories of a not-terribly-good movie that frightened him as a kid, but it is actually a moving consideration of violence (both real and metaphorical), and the pain that a boy endures when his world seems to blow up around him in the wake of his parents’ divorce.
These earlier books are very much concerned with the family that Church was born into; in Ultrasonic, we get a look at the family he has created. Having met Steven Church, the boy, we now meet the man.
As the title suggests, Ultrasonic is much concerned with sound. In the brief author’s note that opens the book and serves as something of a mission statement for the collection, Church explains that his essays “become sounding lines, explorations, probes and tests, each one a map of what lies below the surface; and the form is meant to mimic the way our thinking sometimes moves between points of engagement — navigating in the dark by means of echolocation, bouncing from one idea to another, searching and seeing through sound.” The first sentence of the first essay in the collection, “Auscultation,” announces the real preoccupation of the whole: “In August 2007, a few months before my second child, a daughter, was born, the entire country waited to hear news of six miners trapped fifteen hundred feet underground by a massive cave-in at the Crandall Canyon coal mine in Utah.” Church’s thorough exploration of the sounds in our world — echolocation, stethoscopes, music, the sound of a racquetball hitting a wall — are impressive in terms of his research as well as his linguistic dexterity. But what makes this book great is his ability to think about the way sound connects us to others — particularly those we love.
Consider, for example, the way Church describes his wife’s obsession with rap and hip-hop, which seemed to develop during her pregnancy: “Nothing was going to stop her from listening to her rump-shaking rhythm tracks. Nothing was going to stop her from bouncing to the noise. The music made her feel good at a time when feeling good couldn’t be taken for granted. They helped transcend the physical. And it was sort of funny to watch her shake her swollen belly and lip sync to the radio — even if I could barely stand to listen.” And, of course, he reminds us that “the baby inside was listening too.”
Church, the father and husband and essayist, continues to be affected and shaped by the events of his youth. In fact, he returns to two subjects from his earlier work: a time he witnessed a drowning, and the moment he received the news of the car accident that claimed his brother’s life. Of the drowned boy, in “Seven Fathoms Down” Church writes:
This is the third essay that I’ve written and published about the same event, each one a different essay, exploration, and attempt. I suppose it’s some sort of testament to the lasting power of such things, though not a testament I set out to write. It may seem like bullshit, but the essay found its way to the drowning and I didn’t see it coming. I just followed the pull.
And, in “Lag Time,” he tells us what he heard when his father called to deliver the news of his brother’s death:
I try to let go of that rip in his voice over the telephone almost twenty years ago, and the interminable pause after the words rolled out, It’s Matt. Your brother. There was an accident, and just before the crack of the plastic phone settling into its cradle, because in that lag, that brief second between what he said and the impact of what it meant, it was possible that things would always sound the same between us.
But even as he explores his past, Church is reflecting as a middle-aged man who remains haunted by these memories, not the young person who first responded with shock and dread. In some ways, therefore, these essays are much darker than those he has previously written — in this collection both the writer and his reader come to the realization that these traumas will not fade over the time; instead Church will carry them with him for the rest of his life.
Church covers a variety of subjects in Ultrasonic, from the omnipresent police helicopters in his neighborhood to loitering, from thunder and lightning to Elvis Presley’s last racquetball game. As noted, each piece meditates on sound — and noise — and taken together they feature the sharpest, most clever prose of his career. But more than that, these essays are concerned with the people who surround us. The second-to-last selection, “It Begins With a Knock at the Door,” brings our attention to Church’s elderly neighbor and her lover, relative strangers until the day a medical crisis compels her to seek his help. Yes, we learn of the lady’s audible, panicked flatulence (a detail both surprising and funny), but that’s not what captures us — our attention is focused instead on Church’s compassion for two people he doesn’t really know, and his instinct to protect them when he realizes they’re in trouble. He writes of his desire to help, not in a boastful or sanctimonious way, but in a manner that suggests frustration and anger with himself for not being able to do more in a hopeless situation.
When I first read ”It Begins With a Knock at the Door,” I thought, “This should have been the final piece.” But then I read the last essay and realized I’d been wrong. “Playlist for Finishing a Book,” is the perfect note to end on. What appears at first to be that dreaded pop culture cleverness actually turns out to be a powerful reflection on writing, a sense of home, and above all else, fatherhood. This could have been a serious sentimental misfire — but Church handles the material with customary deftness. I won’t ruin it for you; I’ll only say that he ruminates on natural disaster, his little girl, and hope for the future, with musical accompaniment from the likes of Judas Priest and Metallica.
Church, who is just a little bit older than I am, explores the popular culture I grew up in. He investigates violence and loss, two subjects I think about often. And now — just when I’m beginning to wonder about how I might raise my (at this moment, still hypothetical) children — he is writing about the concerns of middle age. Could it be that the reason I respond to his work so enthusiastically — so personally — is that he wrestles with the same ideas I do? Documents a world that I already know?
That could be part of it, but I don’t think that’s all. Just a few weeks ago, Church came to visit St. Lawrence University, where I teach classes in creative nonfiction. In preparation for his visit, I had assigned several of his essays to my class. The students — all undergrads between 18 and 22 years old — were amped to discuss his work in a way they had not been about other stuff that I had assigned. In fact, the next week I attempted to bring up the assignment for that day’s class when a student raised her hand and asked, “Actually, can we talk a little bit more about Steven Church?” They were especially captivated by one of his early essays, a piece about his son’s toddler years and the experiences they shared. None of the students are old enough to “identify” or “relate” — it was just that they felt like they knew the writer. And they really, really liked him, too.
Steven Church seems to get better with every book he writes, but it’s hard to fathom how he is going to top this one. Ultrasonic, in which his intellect is overshadowed only by his humanity, is the best so far.