A Review of M. Randal O’Wain’s Meander Belt
December 27, 2019 § 1 Comment
By Chansi Long
In one of the early essays in his debut collection, Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South, M. Randal O’Wain retells a poignant memory of a family friend’s suicide. In this essay titled “Arrow of Light,” O’Wain weaves normal childhood milestones alongside a horrific tragedy, recalling how his father picked him up from Webelos in his beat-up truck, but instead of driving home, he careened across town to Jimmy’s house.
O’Wain reassembles blurry details, combining his own memories with things he learned later, to tell the story of how his father’s best friend shot himself. While his father examines the truck where Jimmy’s body is, ten-year-old O’Wain plays in the yard, teaching himself to tie a square knot so he can graduate from Cub Scouts early. The narrator’s desire to mature early in such an innocuous way becomes salient as we discover that his environment will force him anyway into the adult world prematurely.
O’Wain’s father pilfers some gore—viscera and tissue—from the body, and later, O’Wain, his older brother Chris, and his father go to a meadow to bury a cigar box filled with these remains. O’Wain describes the memory thoughtfully, viewing his father’s decision to steal and bury pieces of the corpse with understanding and empathy. The fact that his father took him to Jimmy’s, rather than shielding his innocence by taking him home first, is a point of pride and a defining memory for O’Wain, bringing him closer to his father and the adult world he yearned to join.
Like Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth, the essays in Meander are placed in chronological order, and deliberately ordered to provide structural and thematic coherence. The essays change in pace and tone but the voice—solid, compelling, honest, and funny—carries us through. One of the best is “The Junk Trade,” which has a theme similar to “Arrow of Light.” O’Wain, a fifth-grader, is once again eager to jettison his innocence for the adult world. He drinks black coffee, works his first job, smokes cigarettes, and makes out with his sixth-grade girlfriend Tatum. But the adult world is darker than O’Wain anticipates.
In this essay, a character called Junk Man Wayne sexually assaults O’Wain, and O’Wain follows the adult masculine models of his culture by staying silent on the matter. Reading this essay, I recalled my own attempts to grow up early with smoking, drinking, and sex. At fifteen, I once told my friends I wanted to have sex with a local twenty-one-year-old; a virgin, I was stunned when the man approached me at a party and took me to the woods. Too scared to say anything when he pushed my head toward his crotch, I felt obligated to perform oral sex for the first time in my life. At the time, I brushed the experience off as no big deal, but it was an ushering into the adult world that I wasn’t ready for. There are lots of innocence-shedding moments like this in O’Wain’s book.
O’Wain skillfully integrates humor into his darker material. In one scene, his mother is jamming to “Brown Eyed Girl,” “bouncing in her seat and waving her arms over to me. ‘Car dance,’ she said. ‘Come on, honey, car dance.’ But Tatum was half an hour late, and I didn’t feel like car dancing. ‘Used to love the car dance,’ Mom said, glowering.”
“Superman Dam Fool” is a numbered listicle that braids historical facts about Superman’s death with O’Wain’s personal vignettes on violence; most of the scenes O’Wain recounts occur at a Memphis public middle school where O’Wain was both threatened with a gun, and expelled for carrying a roofing blade in his unicorn emblazoned wallet. In this essay, O’Wain’s humor—an obvious defense mechanism—lightens the tone. “I learned people beat you up less when you acted crazy,” he writes. He was once told he didn’t like Virginia Woolf because he didn’t try hard enough. His rebuttal: “Perhaps you try too hard.”
Most of the essays are written in first or second-person, but there is a sizable section written in third-person. The middle part of the book is comprised of a three-part essay called “Memento Mori.” In this section we witness the movement of O’Wain’s mind as it focuses on his father. In his early twenties, O’Wain traveled the country touring with his band Sicarii, while his father stayed home living out the same-old routine he’d had for decades. With painstaking detail, O’Wain recreates his father’s day-to-day rituals working at a construction site. He embodies his experience using close narrative distance and third-person voice, imagining his father’s feelings and thoughts, and speculating what his life was like as he developed panic attacks.
Initially it’s unclear why O’Wain invests so much attention in recreating the onset of his father’s anxiety—especially when he wasn’t present for these moments. But then his father dies unexpectedly of a heart failure at age forty-eight. O’Wain’s exploration of his father’s last days seem like an attempt to reanimate him via written word, to both grow closer to him and empathize with his struggle.
“Memento Mori” is artful, but it’s not the best part of this book, and in ways, it feels out of place. The other essays are more concise, and they tell us about characters through the author’s perspective, rather than trying to take on their points of view. O’Wain’s voice is strongest when he focuses through his own lens.
William Zinsser’s description of what a memoir does has always resonated with me: “Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.” And that’s what O’Wain provides—a deliberate construction of salient moments, when read, that trigger our memories, produce their own, and linger like lived experience.
Chansi Long is a graduate from the Nonfiction Writer’s program at the University of Iowa. She has been published in the Washington Post, River Teeth and others. Living in southeast Kansas, she is working on a memoir about foster care and poverty.