Memoirs fall into two general categories – shockers and quests. Both feature a before and some kind of cathartic after, but they do it in different ways. The shockers are voyeuristic reads in which we witness the writer crash and burn and then resurrect – from depravity/abuse/some kind of trauma. The quests are journeys where the writer is trying to figure something out and the reader is invited along for the ride. It’s “watch me” vs “come with me”. Shockers are narcissistic, quests are universal. They aim to address the human condition, and despite the specificity of the individual journey, allow us to recognize ourselves in someone else.
David McGlynn’s memoir, A Door in the Ocean is a quest. It’s also a beautifully written book marked by precision of language, acute observation and the sense that the hard work of defining what’s important to him and why has not been shirked. He struggles – in his life, and on the page – to define the meaning of family and religion and morality, and to show us the struggle. It’s a brave book.
Two things happen in McGlynn’s life before he reaches the age of 14. His best friend is violently murdered, and his parents divorce. Neither event really ever lets him go. The murder is random and is never solved. There are no clues and no suspects. Nothing hidden comes to light. No one is questioned or arrested or prosecuted. For months following the murder, McGlynn cuts school and finds other ways to act out, though he doesn’t really want to. “I was ready for whatever punishment they were going to hand out. I even looked forward to it… I wanted confirmation that actions had consequences.”
He doesn’t get it though.
McGlynn and Jeremy, his best friend, are competitive swimmers. “He was the only person in Houston,” McGlynn writes, “in the entire state of Texas, I felt I could trust. The sturdiness of his house … made it a refuge from my own home, still recovering from the nuclear winter of my parents’ divorce.”
For a time, McGlynn is hopeful his parents will reconcile, but his father has one condition: that his mother embrace the evangelical Christianity his father has come to live by. She can’t. His father leaves – the marriage, the family, the state. He moves to California where he marries a woman who has been active much of her life in the Church of the Open Door. “The evidence,” McGlynn writes, “that my father’s new life was better than his old – his life with me – was abundant.” He recognizes that faith was “the price of admission into my father’s life.” He buys a ticket.
McGlynn loves his father, arguably the second of two (his wife is the other) defining relationships of his life. He becomes a swimmer because of his father, and a surfer and is “happy to ride along wherever he went. I was happy just to be with him again.”
McGlynn embraces Christianity, devoting much of his young adulthood to it. Emphatic belief orders his days as he attempts to order the randomness of life. “I was beginning to think of my life as attached to forces other than ordinariness, to God’s will rather than chance.” He moves in with his father and stepmother in California. He takes a vow of celibacy until marriage. He swims.
Swimming – water – is ever-present in the book. Many of the chapters have water-related titles and swimming, its discipline and cost; its goal-orientedness is a constant. Swimming, religion, abstinence are all ways to exert a measure of control over life.
“Swimming was a constant choice between the now and the later; exhaustion now for the sake of fitness later, all those Friday nights in the pool in pursuit of an always-elusive goal. My whole life had become a battle between now and later, and later had won every time, my every desire deferred.”
The problem is the very things religion, physical endurance, abstinence are meant to bulwark and protect him from continue to occur. Another friend dies prematurely, this time after a swimming workout. The bargains he’s made, the protections he’s erected to keep loss, grief, trauma away don’t work. He has no control. Figuring out how to live, what to believe, in spite of life’s randomness is McGlynn’s quest and the story of this memoir.
McGlynn, also the author of a collection of short fiction, The End of the Straight and Narrow, which deals with many of the same issues as the memoir, is a moral writer in the mold of the elder Andre Dubus and, also like Dubus, his writing is clear, descriptive and beautiful. Early mornings in California the coastline is “drowned in a hazy grapelight.” Flying from Texas to California he remembers “the dark Texas pines browning into mountains and canyons.” The book has many beautiful moments, concise descriptions, spare and visual.
It has difficult moments too – the losses of friends, of faith, of heart, the security of family replaced by the “nuclear winter” of his parents’ divorce. Evangelicalism seems to change his father – or change him back – to “the person he’d been … before divorce and murder had any place in my universe.” Longing for the “before,” McGlynn embraces evangelicalism too.
When it’s not about swimming, the presence of water can sometimes seem thin, reached for, and there are times where McGlynn’s meticulous descriptions feel a little labored, and as if they aren’t connected to the whole. But more often they are memorable. “The Thanksgiving I was twelve, my father borrowed wetsuits and took me swimming in the ocean… Swimming was my father’s way of showing me he was still my father in spite of his abrupt and incomprehensible changes. I understood that much, even then.”
Does David McGlynn figure everything out? I think he’d probably tell you there’s no such thing; that there’s no one solid answer. Things change, happen by chance, life is random and as fluid as water. He constructs an impenetrable defense against loss, but losses occur anyway. He’s forced to question and question again the things he chooses to live by. But he moves forward.
A Door in the Ocean begins with a race and ends, two decades later, with another. It says a lot about McGlynn that one of the first words as well as the book’s very last is go.