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October 30, 2019

#158: TO HAVE BEEN THIS ONCE.  Perhaps one reason for my huge enjoyment of Benjamin Taylor’s memoir The Hue and Cry at Our House: A Year Remembered (Penguin, 2017) is that we were both born in 1952, and the props of his childhood—Johnson and Goldwater, lists of presidents, old issues of TV Guide, LPs, bomb shelters, Chunky candy bars, “Rebel Without A Cause”—are on instant recall for me.  The year in account begins tumultuously with the assassination of John F. Kennedy—whose hand, by a nice irony of history, Taylor had shaken at a Fort Worth political event that very morning—and then backs up to the Cuban missile crisis—“the most dangerous day in human history,” he calls it, perhaps not without reason.  Public events and places abound—the 1964 election, the World’s Fair at New York, the Vietnam war, civil rights unrest—along with the artistic and personal: Madame Butterfly, sexual initiations, Huck Finn, James Baldwin’s play Blues for Mister Charlie, Hebrew day classes, summer camp, Salinger.  Behind these, one intense and formative tragedy, a fire which killed his paternal grandmother and three cousins, and, finally, a violent refusal to undergo a proffered operation, which he calls “My Coming into My Own” (note the caps).  Early on, he identifies laconically his taking-off point, the boy who was “Jewish and going-to-be-homosexual” (throw in asthma and a touch of Asperger’s).   Here you may have what gives his prose its outsider’s sharp eye, his sense that what passes for normal is a thin façade for something much more fractious, unspoken and capable of harm.  And always at threat: he writes from his sixties, at which point many of the people he's known are dead.  “Now I’ve concluded middle age,” he writes.  “How do I know, apart from the reckoning of years?  Because what has vanished is so much more substantial than what is present…a terrible state of love for a world blown away like smoke and ash.”  The Hue and Cry at Our House is a kind of mourner’s Kaddish, full of names of those gone; not just his family, or his adored friend, the puppeteer Robert Anton, but of those lost to the Holocaust, those killed during the civil rights unrest, performers and writers he has loved.  And yet there is something funny and gutsy in his vernacular and tone, even triumphant (his nostalgia is too fierce to be wistful).  He quotes lines from Rilke’s Ninth Elegy: “Once for each thing.  Just once, no more.  And we too, / just once.  And never again.  But to have been / this once, completely, even if only once; to have been at one with the earth is beyond undoing.”  And he describes the vigor of his family’s resistance to their troubles: “The hue and cry at our house was against disorder, bedevilment, despair.  My parents meant to outrun those beasts.”  So when he comes to his summation at the book’s end, we can only agree, marvel and be grateful:  “What has happened cannot be made not to have happened.  What has happened cannot happen again.  My mother was born fifty days after my father in the summer of 1919 and died fifty-four days after him in the spring of 2008.  Their having been here defies all undoing.”


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