Thanks to my friend Julia, who has the enviable (if Sisphyean) job of being a free-lance professional book reviewer, I recently had the opportunity to read an amazing new memoir, All the Wrong Places, the second book by Philip Connors.
Last year, Julia had recommended that I read Connors’ first book, Fire Season, a long essay on his work at a lookout in a fire tower in a huge wilderness area in New Mexico. Both a reflection on a solitary endeavor and a historical and philosophical examination of the nature of wildness, Fire Season is exceptionally good, and well worth the time of anyone who enjoys memoir or nature writing.
All the Wrong Places is a kind of prequel to Fire Season, a partial explanation of why Connors abandoned a good life and career in New York City for the isolation and inwardness of the fire tower. In brief, the second book is the story of Connors’ efforts to understand how his older brother, Dan, came to commit suicide, more or less out of the blue. Connors tells this story in masterful style. As much as I loved his prose in Fire Season – which is studded with glowing passages on wildness, on the history of wilderness preservation in the U.S., on the difficulties and pleasures of living utterly alone for weeks at a time – I thought that Connors made huge steps forward as a stylist in Places.
He uses that gorgeous writing to advance a story whose climax we seemingly know almost from the start of the book, when he relates, with exquisite care and equal measures of pain and anger, the details of Dan’s suicide. In the rest of the book, Connors examines this act – selfish, pained, mysterious – from every angle he can, seeking to understand why Dan blew his head off. In making this investigation, Connors exhibits a good sense of his own selfishness, of his narcissistic desire to relieve his guilt at having somehow maybe contributed to Dan’s decision to kill himself. Connors weaves together many moving and often hilarious stories about the classic methods he uses to try to lift his sense of responsibility – talking incessantly with his parents and sister about Dan, drinking a lot, fucking whenever and whomever he can, working too hard. (His insider view of his journalizing at the Wall Street Journal is especially hilarious.)
In his effort to understand, Connors takes his forensic efforts further than most of us would; he interviews the coroner and others who examined Dan’s body and even obtains pictures of Dan’s corpse. But toward the end of the book, these increasingly morbid inquiries are overshadowed by a family secret that immediately seems both necessary and sufficient as an explanation of Dan’s decision to kill himself. A reviewer can’t of course reveal that secret or what Connors does with his discovery, but he can say that getting to that point is well worth a reader’s time, and that the real climax of this self-murder mystery is as gripping a moment as anything he’s read.