MAY 10, 2016
Rob Spillman’s memoir begins beneath the streets of Berlin. It is 1990 and reunification is under way, and he and his wife Elissa are living as squatters in the newly liberated eastern part of the city. They are lured down into an abandoned ball-bearing factory by a local. The scene is tense and fraught with danger. Better judgment would dictate they turn around, but they step through a hole in a wall to enter another world: a rave in an abandoned subway station. Music thrums and people dance on rubble:
“Where are we?” I shout.
“Under the Wall,” our guide yells. […]
“I never want to leave,” I say—out loud, I think. I can’t believe this. We are literally between countries, under two countries.
I close my eyes and let the concussive bass vibrate through my body. I can feel the beat of my heart aligning with the beat of the music. I’m dissolving, breaking into a million particles. I am nowhere. I am home.
Spillman is happiest when he is betwixt and between — on the road, crossing borders, running long distances. This is a realm he knows intimately and documents beautifully in All Tomorrow’s Parties, a yearning, restless memoir about a lost boy looking for home.
The book toggles between two epochs: Spillman’s early years, which were partly spent in Berlin at the height of the Cold War, and his second coming of age which happens when he returns to Europe in 1990 with his wife, and finds his way back to the city of his childhood.
The only child of divorced career musicians, who shared custody and pursued itinerant, seasonal work — shuttling young Robby between households and times zones — Spillman’s was a lonely, culturally enriched childhood “spent playing quietly under pianos.”
“I see myself as a kid with the run of concert halls and opera houses,” he writes,
I was the equivalent of Eloise in the Plaza: unsupervised, skedaddling backstage through the dressing rooms, up into the catwalks, then back down through the set-building shops, oblivious to being at the center of the Cold War and thrilled to be in the wake of my indulgent father. But shortly after we married, I showed Elissa the few photos I have from that time—one where I am clutching a worn-down brown teddy bear and battered book on a beige sofa, another where I am startled next to a thin, undecorated Christmas tree, and one where I am holding and peering through an empty picture frame.
“Jesus, I want to give that poor kid a hug,” Elissa said.
Elissa (writer Elissa Schappell) serves as a crucial compass point in Spillman’s meandering young adult life. In 1989, the two are living in New York and struggling to build careers when they decide to opt out of the publishing rat race to go write their “Great American Expat Novels” in a rustic, Portuguese fishing village.
But while Spillman dithers half-heartedly, “feeling less like Paul Bowles and more like Jack Torrance in The Shining,” his wife gets right to work, pounding out long hours on her Olivetti. “Elissa, unlike me,” he explains,
was more than just in love with the continuum of art. She was really writing and risking herself on the page. I was dipping my toe in from the riverbank, afraid of dark waters. I was in love with my ideas, but was afraid to risk, to fail.
Unable to settle down to work in Portugal, he instead feels drawn to Berlin where the Wall has just fallen, hoping that if he participates in the big, cultural moment happening there, it will ground him and give him something to write about.
That’s his problem, of course — he’s restless: he has no center, no self to write from, no idea that art is born in moments of stillness and focus. He is haunted by his literary heroes, desperate to please others, full of inchoate bitterness over the past, and he imbues art-making with a mythic power that completely shuts him down. “If I could get ‘it’ right,” he muses, “I would return to being a Berliner, which would define me and make me real, not some nebulous amalgam of other people’s histories and creations.”
Sure enough, he and Elissa decide to head for Germany, making a pit stop in Pamplona to run with the bulls. It’s almost as though they are filling in an expat paint-by-numbers portrait of themselves, which only serves to enhance Spillman’s feeling that he is “two-dimensional in a three-dimensional world.” He goes on:
I had seen our whole adventure in Portugal and Pamplona as if everyone we encountered were on a large stage set, performing for us. But I was the fake. I was putting on a show.
Spillman is a casualty of culture class, indoctrinated in the glories of art but given little in the way of practical advice on how he might go about making it himself.
“You can do anything you put your mind to,” my parents told me. The world was wide open. Roots didn’t matter. Family didn’t matter. What mattered was passion and a devotion to your chosen craft. You lived for your craft, and this life could be lived anywhere.
Great advice, if you’re a prodigy, or under the tutelage of devoted, consistent adults. But what if you’re just an average boy growing up unsupervised, in peripatetic circumstances, waiting in the wings of other people’s creativity? As Spillman tells us, “Self-awareness in a ten-year-old can only mean sadness.”
Spillman’s parents, both musical prodigies, had looked to their only son for some similar sign of genius, but “[t]heir stories of determination, drive, and single-minded focus formed the stark background to my opposite childhood of indecision, lethargy, and scattered focus.” And it’s an oppressive legacy. They dragged their son along in their cultural wakes, living in Berlin, Rochester, Aspen, Chautauqua, New Orleans, and Baltimore. His mother was critical and distant. His father, if distracted, was more encouraging, at least. In fact, Spillman’s relationship with his father forms the book’s tender core. The time he spent alone with his dad in Berlin imprinted heavily on him. Later, in the United States, they take long car trips together from one temporary home to the next:
This was my favorite time with my father, just the two of us in the car, mostly quiet, sometimes playing word games, both of us pointing out trees, barns, and other aspects of a landscape that were fixed, permanent, and timeless, markers of our transience. “Nice willow tree.” Nod. “Pretty lake. Let’s build our cabin there, Pa.” Nod.
He spends several summers with his dad at the Chautauqua music festival, where he was often called on to play non-singing roles. It is while stuffed under a fountain in The Barber of Seville, a dark, tiny coffin-like space, waiting for his cue to wave a fish on a stick so that it will look like it is dancing in the water, that he experiences his first major existential crisis:
Under the fountain, as my breathing became more and more shallow, as the fear gripped me tighter and tighter, I had time to nurse a deeper worry: that I had no soul. Opera was no longer reaching me. For so long I had wanted to be part of this creative process, but this wasn’t creaive—it was a hundred-year-old pantomime performed for the rich and comfortable. I wanted to explode, to make noise, to throw bombs at the audience.
A perfect setup for the years of punk rebellion to follow, years in which Spillman channels his disillusion inward. A sympathetic reader will forgive him if he comes off, at times, a little self-serious, slightly prone to pop posturing, and sometimes says unfortunate things like, “Baltimore was asphyxiating my creativity.” Luckily, Elissa, wryly funny, is there to carbonate the narrative, and to give her angsty husband a much-needed smack on the forehead every so often. She injects good sense and yuks along the road. It is fun to watch Spillman flail, while all along his wife is beside him, a metronome of good sense, telling him to get back to work, modeling the genuine creative life that he so longs for. In one memorable exchange, they discuss the future of Berlin and whether they should stay or go back to the United States:
“What are you talking about? This isn’t our fight, Rob. This isn’t our home.”
“It could be, “ I protested.
“Seriously?” Elissa said.
“Think of the Spanish Civil War.”
“Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so,” Elissa said. “Please. Spare me the Hemingway histrionics.”
Really, you just want to kiss her.
Spillman wants to stay in Berlin because he thinks it’s an anchor for him, but it’s just another way station. The fact is he just doesn’t know how to be unless he is in motion: running, driving, hurtling through space.
In his teens, he’s an obsessive, long-distance runner; and earlier still we see an even younger Robby learning to ride a bike. His father gives him a push and he goes flying forward, afraid to turn. He rides straight into an open garage:
Before impact, I had a moment of clarity—the garage’s cement wall was the exact same shade of gray as the Eastern side of the Berlin Wall, which was only a mile away from the apartment where my father and I lived. “Stop, Robby, stop,” I heard my father yelling, but I couldn’t stop.
The Berlin Wall, that great symbol of the divided self, looms throughout. Whether Spillman is describing the perils of No Man’s Land, or the East German citizenry chipping holes in it with hammers, the Wall forms a palpable presence in his life and book. He negotiates it, orients to it, uses it to separate himself from others, sits atop it trying to figure out if he is German or American, punk rock or classical, artist or gentrifier, Ken Kesey or Hunter S. Thompson, dead or alive.
All this toggling is fluid and logical, and the two stories build and reflect each other to give the memoir a pleasing shape and rhythm. Then, too, it comes with its very own Spotify playlist, which features everything from Erik Satie to the Meat Puppets. Like our narrator, the soundtrack is interesting and eclectic, but also a little fractured and self-conscious; its cultural bona fides are front and center, but it lacks intrinsic coherence.
Eventually the story doubles back to the rave under the Wall, where Elissa saves Rob’s life by forcing him to save hers. When she suffers some kind of seizure, astonishingly, rather than call an ambulance, Spillman laces up his sneakers and leaves her to go for run — a final opportunity to bullshit himself:
In no time I’m on the outskirts of the city. I run harder. I could be anywhere—on the mountain trails of Colorado, on the streets of Baltimore; this rush in universal, the feeling of flight and freedom, of getting away from everything and into myself. I’m not living in the future or past. I’m here, now.
He finally snaps to and returns to the apartment to find Elissa asleep on a window ledge. It is a terrifying moment that feels almost unforgivable. The emergency forces him to grow up, and Spillman gives us a Dorothy-in-Oz-like happy ending: he realizes that Elissa is home — that what he was looking for was right there all along, both inside of him and beside him.
If the ending feels a little pat that’s perhaps because, as the adage goes, it’s the journey not the destination — and Spillman is all journey. Ultimately, he and Schappell found their way back to New York, where they settled down to productive careers and went on to establish the highly respected literary journal, Tin House. Their lives are proof of what is so clear by the end of All Tomorrow’s Parties: we can have great adventures — but we’ll never be able to turn them into art until we just sit still and write.
Erika Schickel’s book reviews, journalism, and personal essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Rattling Wall, LA Observed, and numerous literary anthologies.