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, Brown reveals the better angels of his nature. Those appalling early years were at least somewhat mitigated by the example of a father who taught him how to work hard; his father’s influence was so powerful, in fact, that he was able to steer Brown away from a labor-intensive career in construction towards college and the life of the mind. Channeling himself at seventeen, Brown writes: “Part of me wants to break the cycle of the men in our family working the trades and be the first to attend college.” But at this point in his life, he just doesn’t believe he’s smart enough. His father vehemently disagrees and won’t sign the release form that would send his son to vocational school. These moments make clear that Brown’s childhood was not unrelentingly dreadful, that there were periodic blessings.
In “This River,” the title chapter and moral center of the book, Brown does his best to transfer these blessings to his own children, his two sons who accompany him to a river in Oregon where his father had taken him as a child. He recreates for them his father’s careful instructions on every detail: “How to pitch a tent. How to shoot a .22 rifle straight and true. How to string and tackle and bait a hook and where to throw your line for your best chances of catching a fish.” Filled with love of family and nature, this section of Brown’s memoir speaks of a duty that obligates us to remember the best of the past, and to pass those good memories, our hard-won knowledge, on to the next generation.
Later, Brown describes taking his boys to their wrestling match where one boy loses because his opponent cheats. In the heat of the aftermath, Brown and the cheater’s father almost come to blows. On the way home, Brown is uncomfortable about losing his temper. He tells us: “I would like to believe that I can offer my sons a better world where there is no racism, no cheating. No parents who teach their children to hate and hurt others. But I can offer them no such thing.” Here, Brown affirms what many of us know: it’s a rough world and the best we can offer our children are ways of lessening their suffering — behaviors that will help them survive the vicissitudes of a totally unpredictable life.
The final chapters reveal Brown’s obsession with bodybuilding and steroids, the use of which turned him into “some kind of animal.” He gives us not only a chapter of “Instructions on the Use of Heroin,” describing the process, but also a description of his attempts to kick the habit and his many relapses.
This River pulls no punches; art shouldn’t and Brown doesn’t. The good, the bad, the ugly are all there in a lucid, uncluttered, muscular prose studded with honesty, willpower, and courage. Brown’s is a story of a man who, against overwhelming odds, not only came back from the abyss, but triumphed.