Review by Emily Wick
Allison Green’s memoir The Ghosts Who Travel With Me (Ooligan Press, June 2015) begins on the road in Idaho, where she and her partner Arline are following in the tire tracks of Richard Brautigan, the American author of novels, short stories, and poetry. Green has a soft spot for Brautigan’s novel Trout Fishing in America, which she picked up as a teenager and has returned to repeatedly throughout her life. Seeking a greater understanding of why Brautigan has affected her so much, she sets out from her home state of Washington to drive through Idaho, which is not only the setting of Trout Fishing in America but also where Green’s family came from, making it her “ancestral and literary homeland” and the perfect place to anchor her memoir.
Brautigan is a logical choice as the impetus for Green’s literary pilgrimage. Early in the book, Green reveals that she has always felt adrift between generations—a topic she returns to often. Her age makes her a young baby boomer (part of those born between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, called “Generation Jones”) and she regrets that she missed out on hippie culture by being born a little too late. To the baby boomers she writes, “Everything you had, I wanted; everything you did, I wanted to do, for years and years and years.” Brautigan represents the 1970s hippie culture that was waning by the time Green came of age: “He inhabited an America of hope and imagination, of surreal but engrossing dreams. And what exactly was the nature of those dreams? That was one of the things I went to Idaho to find out.”
Green and Arline’s pilgrimage takes them to a number of creeks, campsites, and towns that appear in Trout. Written as a collection of short vignettes, the book incorporates Green’s memories of her ancestors and early life, historical and literary exploration of Richard Brautigan, and her experiences of and thoughts on various cultural movements. Green is ambitious, covering a lot of ground both in terms of miles and subject matter. No topic—from big issues like grappling with misogyny and racism in beloved books and commodification of the wilderness, to the minutiae of making hamburger helper—is off limits.
Green’s style is light-hearted and unassuming, using simple sentence structure and frank description. This works well when Green explores her own past, especially when she infuses her anecdotes with humor. Yet some of the vignettes that focus more on “issues” than anecdotes are not as well served by this style. Occasionally, they end up reading like summary, begging for more interpretation.
There is little tension or conflict to drive the story, but Green says herself that she is “more interested in sentences and paragraphs than in narrative momentum,” making it clear that this choice is intentional. Perhaps this style is an effort to pay homage to Brautigan; she writes that, from a young age, “his books gave me words and sentences, rhythms, a style.” Still, with the book taking on such an extensive scope, occasionally I found myself losing track of story’s trajectory as the text bounced around in time.
While the trip may not have resolved Green’s yearning to belong to a different era, it did help her decipher why she feels so connected to Brautigan. She recognizes that her nostalgia for a different time is mirrored by his own:
“And it occurred to me that while I spent my adolescence wishing I’d been born ten years earlier, old enough to be a hippie, Brautigan had wished he hadn’t missed out on an earlier, more pristine American wilderness. We both ached for a lost Eden, but in the end, he sat down at the picnic table and tried to make sense out of the world he had inherited … I’d followed the book all this way, into the heart of Idaho, to find that Brautigan’s paradise was not a place but an action: the making of art out of confusion.”
The memoir as a whole is determined and broad, meandering across decades and state lines, bursting with historical information and references to American culture in the past sixty years. It will appeal especially to Brautigan fans, baby-boomers, and those suffering from nostalgia for their hippie days. Green is tenacious in her wandering and questioning, delivering a comprehensive portrait of how she carefully examined the many ways her favorite author’s story intersected with—and changed the course of—her own.
3 out of 5 stars