A Review of Sue William Silverman’s How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences
March 4, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
Hemingway said all true stories end in death. But he wasn’t from Jersey, so what did he know?” quips Sue William Silverman in her latest essay collection, How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences.
The book’s title may suggest this is a morbid book; yet, Silverman in her own clever way leans towards tongue-in-cheek, mixing pop culture, literature, and history with her stories and, of course, her unending quest to survive.
But what is death? First, she thinks it’s the Ultima Thule on medieval maps—the great unknown where sea monsters roam. Then again, it could be the ultimate boundary…the great wall. On the other hand, it might be a new path, a grand new adventure. Whatever…Silverman is dead-set to outwit, outdrive, and outrun it.
This latest collection of essays examines her life from age four to present, though not sequenced chronologically. They are stories of survival. Most focus on Silverman’s teenage years in Glen Rock, New Jersey, cruising Route 17 in her gold Plymouth Savoy “for hours, for days, or seemingly forever.” Windows down, hair flying, Stones, Beatles, and Supremes blasting, she’s searching for action: bars that welcome teenage girls, diners with illuminated “Eat Here” signs, boardwalks with rides, and parking lots with guys with packs of Camels rolled in their sleeves.
Terrified of death, teenage Silverman nevertheless taunts it: “When I reach Deadman’s Curve, I hit the gas. I spin around the circle once, twice, as if driving an amusement park bumper car, daring death to catch me in this never-ending circle. I swerve to avoid an unamused driver inching into the roundabout from a side street. He honks, I wave, smile, and press on, driving faster.”
The gold Savoy propels Silverman into a dream world. On the shoulder of the road, she sits and watches a movie flicker on a drive-in screen. “Giant movie stars, night after night, hover godlike over the awed assembly: Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Warren Beatty, Natalie Wood. Their starry faces glow, projected against the backdrop of night,” she writes. “The movies end. Cars roll from the lot. Tinny voices, from speakers knocked from their posts and dangling on frayed wires call out: Come back, my darling!”
Later, the gold Savoy climbs the majestic Palisades taking Silverman on a view of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge. There she discovers a monument erected to Alexander Hamilton who died in a duel against Aaron Burr. Silverman consoles him: “Generations will visit you on this spot, keeping you, albeit, not the corporeal you, alive.”
It’s here, I realize that the “death” Silverman refers to is not limited to the physical, but includes the soul-crushing spiritual death that dims our lights and steals our hearts.
The gold Savoy moves on to the Jersey Shore, famous for its rides, games, saltwater taffy, and sandy beaches. On a starless night, a man with a knife pulls Silverman into the dark, below the boardwalk. “His hand pins my long braid as if staking it into eternity,” she writes. “A wisp of soul levitates from a somatic body.”
Traumatized, she’s unable to speak certain words. Later, when she returns to the boardwalk, she watches the Ferris wheel hover over her as it did that night, and she sees the ride has since darkened. Now, though, she knows bulbs can be replaced, light restored.
One of my favorite essays (originally published on Rumpus) is “Miss Route 17 Refuses to Grow Old.” At an Adam Lambert concert, Silverman watches the American Idol winner rise onto the stage, glittering in sequins in a feathered top hat, fringed jacket, and black pants. Though Silverman is on the third row, she pushes closer, closer, closer: “In Adam’s presence, we are cloaked in a black-magic trance, a malarial fever, an outbreak of frenzied worship.”
I know this so well. Years ago, I fell under the spell of a goth rock band, known as Rasputina—three women with cellos, dressed in lacy corsets, hair in ringlets, singing outrageously creepy songs about plagues, fires, insanity, suicide, and eating rats. I obsessed over the band’s lead singer, Melora Creager. Her voice, reedy as a siren’s has a wide quivering vibrato. It combined with the cellos and special effects created a gritty, old, faraway sound as if hearing this music from the horn of a Victrola. It became my gold Plymouth Savoy, taking me away from real-life dramas that scared me far more than any crazy tales this band could conjure.
“In short, pre-Adam, I slumped into middle age,” Silverman writes. “But now he and his music jump-started my heart better than any defibrillator.”
No Hemingway death ending here. These essays show a narrator pushing on, doing whatever it takes to rock on.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her work has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in numerous anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.