Dead and death interest me. I’ve got my own Día de los Muertos collection. I’ve written about rituals for the dead from Mexico to China. I still do.
This year, at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, our teaching fellow told me to read The Glen Rock Book of the Dead by Marion Winik. She said I needed to be able to explain why my own essay to the dead is not a reference to Winik’s.
Later, I realized that The Glen Rock Book of the Dead appears in the list of recommended readings in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction. So, let me say up front, I had expectations.
The expectations ratchet ever higher when I read Winik’s Author’s Note. Apparently, this book is the result of a writing workshop she attended in 2007. One short year later, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead is published. Hope springs eternal.
In short, two page vignettes, Winik portrays various members of her home town in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania. Meet The Junkie.
In my youth I was often told, usually by men, that I talked too much, so it was a relief to finally meet a guy who talked more. He was the son of a Chicano boxer from Texas retired to Pinebrook, New Jersey, the hometown of my future brother-in-law, The Carpenter. Growing up, they called him Bean–because he was Mexican, I reminded my sister the other day. Oh, boys will be boys: first tree houses and mischief, then girls and cigarettes, then roofing jobs and heroin.Marion Winik, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead (Counterpoint Press 2008)
Winik has moves. The tone, so chatty on the surface and so barbed beneath. You think you’ve got a bead on her and then she pulls a fast one. Did you see heroin coming into the picture? It was as much a surprise to me as it might have been to Bean.
Bean is also typical of the persons portrayed in The Glen Ross Book of the Dead. All the vignettes say something about Winik herself. In this case, it might be the love she and Bean shared for the needle. Usually, however, the connection is indirect. The links can be tenuous.
The only member of the family we really knew was the dog, a huge wooly brown Airedale named Chumleigh who caused great hilarity and panic whenever he managed to bound away from the person holding his chain. The boy, on the other hand, stayed on the leash. Which was short, since his father was the principal. No, he could not come out to play Spud. Or ride bikes. Or take bong hits. Not that we ever asked.“The Neighbor”
In truth, the linchpin isn’t Glen Rock at all. It’s the fact that all these people are dead. None of them is identified by name. Winik gives them a moniker like the Queen of New Jersey or the King of the Condo. Plus, the year of death. In my hardback edition of The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, pen-and-ink illustrations, say, of a needle, further identify the subject.
It might be the illustrations that distract me. Maybe it’s the fact that Winik was modeling The Glen Rock Book of the Dead on the Spoon River Anthology (1915). The latter is a poetry collection by Edgar Lee Masters that eulogized the residents of a fictitious community named Spoon River. Winik is only one year older than me and yet the vibe of The Glen Rock Book of the Dead feels like 19th century Henry James.
As a good eulogy does, each of her vignettes speak of the mark these people left in their passing.
When she could not think of the word, could not remember the name, could not work, could not be alone, she bore the bewilderment with grace. Though there were times when it was too much. […] Yet one warm spring day in the timeless time when she couldn’t recall the names of her children or even that they were her children, those abandoned loves took her out for a walk. She burst into an aria, sang it full throat from beginning to end.“The Democrat”
Winik’s first memoir, First Comes Love, records the death of her first husband from AIDS. In The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, we learn that Winik also lost a child. Death marks this writer.
I was twenty-eight years old when my first baby died. It was a few days before his due date. They never could say why. I held him in my arms once, briefly; he weighed less than a dinner plate.“The Baby”
The Urgency to Write
At Kenyon, we were given prompts and exactly 2 minutes and 40 seconds to free-write. The last prompt was this: imagine you have only 30 more days to write. What do you write about?
This question returns to me as I read The Glen Rock Book of the Dead. The majority of vignettes in this collection are of strangers who only glancingly touched Winik’s life. They seem to have made it into Glen Rock because of the manner of their death: suicide, cancer, freak accident. I won’t go so far as the Los Angeles Times did to call Glen Rock a gimmick. But the randomness of the way in which many of these subjects met their end, combined with their relative emotional distance to Winik, makes Glen Rock feel prurient (to use an excellent 19th century word).
I liked best the vignettes of the dead who were closest to Winik in life. The Skater (her first husband) and his brothers, the twitchy boyfriend of Winik’s closest friend.
He was a surrealist poet from outside Los Angeles, with smooth, California-colored hair, a feline languor, a good vocabulary, a pack of Marlboro reds, a gentlemanly addiction to whatever anyone might have on hand. At the time, my husband had Vicodin, Klonopin, and sublingual morphine tablets, so the two became close.“The Man of Letters”
There is no denying Winik’s skill in sketching an individual in a few, devastating strokes. But it’s the portraits of her nearest and dearest that seem to pack the biggest punch. Like this: “How many poems can you write about your father? Maybe one for every day of your life.”
14 August 2022 | Karen Kao