NOVEMBER 29, 2016
IN THE TITLE ESSAY of his new collection Everything We Don’t Know, Aaron Gilbreath begins by noting the unexpected and far-reaching consequences of the Fukushima meltdown: “On Friday, March 23, 2012,” he writes, “a year after Japan’s […] nuclear disaster, a Canadian patrol aircraft spotted a rusty vessel floating toward the British Columbia coast. It was the Ryou-Un Maru, a Hokkaido shrimping ship, and it was unmanned.” Only after further detailing the strange appearance on the west coast of the United States and Canada of possibly toxic Fukushima artifacts, does Gilbreath introduce the personal angle, reflecting on the ways that this alarming phenomena may affect his own fish-heavy diet. Throughout the essay, he skillfully interweaves the personal and the world-historical, expanding outward to wax philosophic on the limits of human knowledge.
Then, in “Every Supper the Last,” Gilbreath considers, with unflinching clarity, the mortality of his father, a 70-year-old diabetic who refuses to take proper dietary measures. As he reflects on his father’s life and health and his own possible culpability (by not keeping a closer watch on his hamburger intake), Gilbreath both paints a vivid portrait of a stubborn, but charming man and captures the unbearable sadness of impending death.
These essays offer two approaches to the personal essay, which turn out to be pretty much the same. Whether by working in collage with different subjects, or making the ostensible focus of the piece someone other than himself, Gilbreath is able to explore the personal obliquely, writing about the self by writing about things outside the self. If all essay writing is a performance, then he plays his part perfectly, deflecting attention from his star turn and thus winning the reader’s interest and allegiance.
But it doesn’t always work. This is the difficulty with first-person essaying after all, as Gilbreath himself acknowledges:
Personal history has an ugly myopic side: details that mean everything to you mean nothing to others. Fine, you think during someone’s longwinded story of third grade show and tell, I’m glad that happened to you, but what does that have to do with me?
And getting around the problem is especially tricky for Gilbreath, because, clever strategies aside his collection of essays is so intimately concerned with his personal development and coming of age. To be sure, his life is not without its share of intrinsically exciting incident: drug arrests, attacks by killer yellow jackets, trespassing in condemned motels — but Gilbreath is finally less concerned with presenting the luridness of external incident than with charting his own inner life.
From his upbringing in drab Phoenix to his early adulthood camping and hiking his way around the continent to his (briefly touched upon) present status as man with a wife and a child, Gilbreath traces a life spent defying conventional expectations as well as the resultant guilt. For instance, in “A Reckless Autonomy,” he is well into his 30s, and leaves for California, camping out in his truck for several nights in order to take in a favorite band. In the middle of the trip, he questions himself: “no girlfriend, no money, no health insurance […] Were music and fun all I wanted out of life?” he wonders. Self-awareness notwithstanding, the alternatives don’t appeal. “Too much of life was just so earthly,” he writes. “If you broke down the activities that composed our daily existence, it didn’t amount to much: Which size garbage bag should I get? What’s the difference between spearmint and wintermint?” Even as he presents the larger dilemma as black and white — it’s either the drab quotidian or world-stomping adventuring — he stays true to his essayistic mission: pursuing this question of how to live throughout the book’s 300-plus pages.
Other essays touch on such diverse subjects as the author’s pet ferret, his decision to sell his collection of Star Wars figures, and the evolution of the word “radical,” but whatever he’s writing about, he’s primarily concerned with navigating the twin poles of responsibility and freedom as they play out in his day-to-day. For the reader, this can be exhausting: as he works through the same themes again and again, the question arises as to just how we’re willing to follow him in his musings. Perhaps there is simply too much here (the book is considerably longer than most volumes of personal essays); as thoughtful as he is, Gilbreath has a little trouble sustaining a consistent charge across the collection’s 18 pieces.
This is not to say that he isn’t a talented essayist, but rather that he doesn’t present as a figure quite compelling enough to sustain the level of interest that his book demands. He allows us to share in his thinking process; he arrives at self-assessments that seem both honest and balanced; he presents a handful of supporting characters as vivid objects of inquiry in their own right. And yet, he leaves us wanting just a bit more, longing for him to surprise us, to reveal something new about himself in each piece. That he’s not quite able to do this registers as a disappointment, but mostly because of the promise he’s shown from the start. However, if Gilbreath hasn’t delivered the next great book of essays, he can at least take comfort in this: he’s done far more than bore us with mere stories of show and tell.