NOVEMBER 27, 2019
BY THE TIME HE WAS in his mid-20s, M. Randal O’Wain had done more living than many people twice his age. In his teens, he worked construction with his father in Memphis. In high school, he followed a drifter named Winter all the way to Montreal. He joined a punk band in Olympia, Washington, and found hourly work lashing trains to barges in Puget Sound. He wrote a novel and, despite having dropped out of school in the eighth grade, enrolled in an Oakland community college.
But none of these experiences prepared O’Wain for the deaths, within a three-year span, of his father and older brother, two troubled yet good-timing blue-collar workers whose genius for manual labor and assumptions about masculinity had long been a source of inspiration, confusion, and ire. These losses, and the sense of disorientation that followed, form the emotional core of Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South, O’Wain’s debut memoir.
I met O’Wain in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. In the seminar room, he radiated the rapt attentiveness of a writer with skin in the game. We had two classes together. One was about Virginia Woolf and George Orwell. The other was John D’Agata’s course on the history of the essay, during which O’Wain presented on James Boswell’s audacious, genre-defying Life of Johnson.
Orwell is an obvious touchstone in Meander Belt. Like Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, the book is a meticulous chronicling of working-class reality. But the spirit of Boswell also surfaces in the book’s structural dexterity. Meander Belt includes fragmented essays (“Superman Dam Fool”), essays in installments (“Memento Mori”), epistolary essays (“Dear Brother”), performative essays (“How to Walk as a Nontraditional Graduate”), continuous narratives (“The Junk Trade”), and lyric meditations (“On Love”).
Although the memoir is full of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, it never feels frivolous. A love letter to Memphis, it is also a send-off. In sentence after taut sentence, O’Wain aims for the heart while also deploying humor. “In kindergarten,” he writes in an essay about delinquency called “Superman Dam Fool,” “I sold my soul to the devil. I’d been punished, sent out into the hall, for using my hand to make fart sounds under my arm.” The jacket calls Meander Belt a coming-of-age story, but it’s equally a story about coming around. “Distance was key,” O’Wain writes, “if I ever wanted to hear what my spirit sounded like without influence.”
O’Wain and his partner, the novelist Mesha Maren, live in West Virginia on Muddy Creek Mountain. Because he doesn’t get phone service at the house, I called him on a Tuesday morning in nearby Lewisburg, where he sat in his pickup truck across the street from a cemetery while we talked.
DREW BRATCHER: Your memoir contains vivid descriptions of manual labor. Your father was a construction worker and your brother was a mechanic, and from an early age you were sort of primed to follow suit. What led you to take a different path?
M. RANDAL O’WAIN: I dropped out of school in the eighth grade and sometime after that I started working for my father and his crew, and they hated me. They hated me because I was the boss’s son, sure, and I was femme and weighed 115 pounds. But they also hated me because I looked at the world in a very discursive way, which was a sign of weakness. I could tell I embarrassed my father. I quit and got a job in a donut shop where all the punks worked. So I felt like I was pushed out before I even had a chance to understand what the work meant. But that experience made me ask, If I’m not this, then what the hell am I?
You left Memphis at 16, first moving to Montreal and then eventually to Olympia, where you played guitar in the punk band Sicarii. Recently, however, you’ve been living on a mountain in West Virginia, in a house that you rebuilt by yourself. So, in a way, you’ve kept the family tradition after all.
Before moving here, I actually had a job working construction in Asheville, North Carolina. And I realized that I understood more about construction than I knew. I can’t tell you how many times I was on a job and I just started fucking bawling because I felt a genuine connection. The smell of paint, the smell of sawdust, the smell of mud being sanded off the walls — it was the smell of my father.
And was restoring the house also a way of dealing with your grief?
It was a little different. By the time I moved to West Virginia, the grief wasn’t as deep as it had once been. Instead, it felt like my chance to learn to do things that are useful. This week, for instance, I put ceiling fans in the house because of the heat wave, and now I know how to do that. In that way, remodeling the house is a better dedication to my father than any book could be.
Your book complicates certain tropes about families. It’s not a book about a father’s disappointment in his son any more than it’s a book about a son’s attempt to get his father’s love. It presents the relational dynamics as a messy continuum.
When my father died, I was still a kid. I didn’t get that opportunity, which a lot of adults get, to reconcile with him, and it was the same way with my brother. He and I were distanced from each other when he died. So the story, in a sense, was just really incomplete, really complicated. But family always is. People are way too complex to be a single thing. I mean, Proust tried to write about his mother in 5,000 pages and failed. It’s an impossibility for the son to fully understand the father, and it’s an impossibility for the father to fully perceive the son. I think that’s the failure of memoir as a genre, this idea that transformation is total. I get that readers want to feel good at the end of an addiction memoir, an illness memoir, a grief memoir; but the truth is often that the addiction is still there even when you are sober, the disease is still with you even when you are healed, and the loss of a father … fuck, man, the father never goes away.
You also write short stories. How was writing this memoir different than writing fiction?
With fiction, my characters really do just take residence in my mind. They have nothing to do with me. Of course, they’re related to how I see and understand the world, but they are very different than I am. In fact, my forthcoming short story collection, Hallelujah Station, came almost as an antidote to writing the memoir, which took years and was so difficult to go through. I would find my mind distancing itself from the memoir and telling me a story, you know, about a catatonic woman who communicates using radio stations she picks up through her silver fillings, and I would write that story, which is the title story to the collection. So they’re way more fun, I think. They’re not happy necessarily, but they have different imaginative boundaries.
There’s a lot of fun in this book, too. Among other things, you write wonderfully about the music scene in Memphis. What role did music play in opening your eyes to new possibilities in life and art?
When I was 14, some older friends of mine who had a car took me to my first punk show at this place called the Antenna Club. At that point it was the second oldest punk club, next to CBGB, in the country. Every Sunday they had an all-ages matinee show. It was all local bands, and they were really good. The songs were one-and-a-half-minutes long and brutal. The bands looked cool and they smelled terrible and I was like, “This is where I’m supposed to be.” The music was very different from Nirvana and Pearl Jam and what you saw on MTV. It was very political. I became a vegetarian. I put “Meat Is Murder” bumper stickers on the refrigerator. My father got so angry.
Even though this book, in many ways, is about your attempt to distance yourself from your father and his way of living, it is also a radical attempt to understand him, perhaps nowhere more intriguingly than in an essay like “Memento Mori,” where you narrate his actions, and even thoughts, as if you have complete access to them.
Because I wasn’t around when my father’s mental health began to seriously decline, the question was how to get that portion of his story into the memoir. So I tried essaying letters and photographs. I tried inserting interviews with my mom and sister. And then one day I was sitting upstairs in my house in West Virginia. In the pasture next door, my neighbors were burning trash. I had taken Sudafed and drank a ton of coffee, as one might do when they’re stuck with writing, and suddenly my father’s voice was just there, as a character, as sometimes happens in fiction. I resisted it for a couple of days, but then the scenes just kept coming. They materialized very naturally. It felt good. I felt close to him. Then, instead of policing myself, telling myself I can’t do that, I just did it.
How do you justify the use of a more fictional technique in a work of nonfiction?
Everything in the book is true but the way that I wrote those father sections take liberties that I’ve seen in radical biographies, like Geoff Dyer’s book about jazz musicians, But Beautiful, for example. I researched the memories. I wrote them down and then I would fact-check them with my mother and my sister, and oftentimes I was right, and sometimes I wasn’t. I never really thought of it as trying to rock the boat or anything. It was how my mind wanted to tell the story. There are two kinds of stories, above-the-shoulders stories and stories that are in your guts. The stories in Meander Belt were all in my heart and guts. That translated into more scene-driven work. I wanted to inhabit those moments as wholly as I could.
I was reminded of Jo Ann Beard’s story “Cousins,” a portion of which is narrated, as you know, from her mother’s womb.
I read The Boys of My Youth in 2006 or 2007, and I thought, “This is amazing. I want to do something like this.” It’s strange. I don’t think I would write Meander Belt in the same way now. I’m in a different, more “above the shoulders” place in my life. But I ended up with a book I would have loved when I first started reading creative nonfiction.
The sentences in your memoir are severely beautiful. What else were you reading while you were working on this book?
I read biographies almost the entire time, and poetry collections, because I could read them without influence. When you’re working on a book, it’s really hard to enjoy something that’s too similar to your own work. You’re just annoyed at their moves, or jealous of their moves, analyzing everything. But I could read Peter Guralnick’s Elvis biography, or Sharon Olds’s The Father, and simply enjoy the work. But poetry, in particular, would help me get unstuck. This is going to sound super pretentious, but I also read the Old Testament. I fell in love with the King James language, the repetition of “and the.” I’d never read the Old Testament.
It’s striking, isn’t it, the way the Bible insists on including its characters’ flaws?
I mean, Moses was more like a Mel Brooks character than some great king. At the burning bush, he’s like, “You know, I don’t talk so good. Why don’t you ask my brother?” It’s incredible. I had no idea.
Your partner, Mesha, also had a book come out this year. What was it like to work on your separate projects together and then to have them come into the world at around the same time?
She’s read countless versions of my book, and I read at least 15 versions of her novel Sugar Run. We keep each other pretty much in check. You can’t mess with someone when they’re working because that space is so precious. Sometimes we lived in really small apartments, and when she was writing, I felt encouraged to write as well.
Is there ever any competition between the two of you?
Of course, there have been a lot of ups and downs. I didn’t know how I was going to feel when her book came out. But then Sugar Run was a massive success and I felt happy as hell the whole time.
How important is vulnerability in memoir?
The memoirs that are published and make a lot of money tend to embrace this idea of ultimate transformation, and that feels like a lie to me. Art that’s only light is resisting vulnerability. Vulnerability doesn’t have to be the most depressing thing that’s ever happened to you. Vulnerability can also just mean admitting you were wrong. Or that you thought something that ended up not being true later on.
There’s no light without darkness, as Johnny Cash taught us.
Can I tell you a story? Last summer, I spent a whole day cutting this fallen cherry tree length-wise to make a fence. Afterward, I was putting chicken on the grill and Mesha and I were hanging out drinking, and I turned around and the entire forest floor was glowing. In the darkness, the wood I’d cut from the cherry tree was glowing too. It was what they call foxfire, bioluminescent bacteria. And it was amazing because I was going through a depressive spell at the time, and I felt such incredible joy. It was a gift. It was like, “Here, man. Here’s something just for you.”
Drew Bratcher’s last piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books was about the country band Alabama. You can read more of his work at andrewbratcher.com.