Review by Anthony Clemons
Uniting a storyline from a collection of disparate essays using the chronology of memoir requires a combination of artful talent and a confident pluck with narrative craft. In his debut book, Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South (October 2019, University of Nebraska Press) M. Randal O’Wain gives the world one of those rare literary gems that successfully lands in the intersection of both genres.
From the outset, O’Wain details the intent of his storytelling approach, “I am not, nor have I ever been, much interested in accuracy. I’m interested in verisimilitude.” This admission is not to be confused with a willingness to mislead the reader by incorporating composite characters or telling falsehoods. Rather, O’Wain confesses the better angels of his artistic nature lead him to use a narrative style that “mirrors fiction,” which “complicates the accuracy of memory.” Instead, he omits certain characters and reconstructs dialogue all in service to interrogating the past and creating a more “concise and elegant narrative.”
Over his 196-page essay-driven memoir, O’Wain weaves together a raw collection of moving reflections into a coming-of-age story that meditates on two predominant themes: identity and loss.
Using frank prose and vivid imagery, O-Wain effectively absorbs the reader while sensitively peeling back the scab of time to reassemble the events that led him to where he is today. Some of these events inform the narrative in small ways while others are a formative source for how he evolves, including: his mother’s polio, a sexual assault, his brother’s death, his father’s death, his drug-infused travels, and then his return home to face his mother’s painful psychological break.
He opens the book with a three-page essay titled “Mirrored Mezzanine.” In spite of its brevity, O’Wain relays a tender story of his father, a construction worker by trade, waking him and his young siblings in the middle of the night with a surprise trip to a construction site located in a high-rise in downtown Memphis, Tennessee. Once inside, his father shuffles the children into an elevator and “up to an expansive room.”
“It’s this way, he says, waving us through a heavy wooden door and into the unfinished restroom mezzanine where large mirrors cover the walls and floor and ceiling,” O’Wain writes.
For anyone who’s never lived in persistent uncertainty and felt the chilled rawness of merely surviving, this essay is completely unrelatable. But for a lower middle-class, white, southern boy in the 1990s, this essay is nostalgic and personally relatable. It’s also important for showing that O’Wain’s father loved his children so much that he took them out of bed in the middle of the night to show them beauty outside of their lived experience in the most blue-collar form of expression: his own work. That’s part of what makes this memoir such a joy to read and what separates it from other narratives about southern life.
O’Wain doesn’t fetishize his heritage or his search for identity by dwelling on scenes and descriptions that effectuate poverty porn. He also makes no attempt to incorporate any socio-economic discursion that applies blame or offer some grand theory about how things should be. Instead, he adopts an introspective narrative that’s centered on his characters—be it a place or a person—as a means of contextualizing his own lived experience. Part of this approach necessitates that O’Wain select compelling events with relatable stakes that highlight his characters’ traits and then blend it all with the backdrop of the conditions that they inhabit.
Nearly all of his essays do this, save a three-part essay titled, “Memento Mori,” which translated means, “remember you will die.” These essays comprise nearly one-third of the book and are meant to be a combination of his and his father’s points-of-view in service to telling the story of the decline of his father’s health and his death at the age of 48. It’s a technique that follows with his goal of verisimilitude and redolent of Vivian Gornick’s admission to using composed conversations and circumstances in her celebrated memoir Fierce Attachments (April 1987, FSG), but in this case O’Wain didn’t leave the reader willfully ignorant.
In each essay, O’Wain lets the narrative guide the point-of-view he uses, choosing a combination of first, second, and third-person, in no particular order. His casual style masterfully invites the reader to omnisciently observe each of his poignant experiences and relate with his pain, confusion, or frustration.
Joyce Carol Oates once remarked that “In love there are two things—bodies and words.” In totality, I found Oates’s remark to be apropos for this memoir. Across each of O’Wain’s 19 chapters, I saw that a son’s love for family can be manifested through his prose even as he seeks to understand his own identity and navigate the premature ceremonies of loss that the late Poet Laureate Donald Hall once designated for old age.
It makes sense that the University of Nebraska Press chose O’Wain’s Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South for its American Lives Series. This is a quintessential American story of overcoming a life of hardship through perseverance and self-reclamation and coming out changed without really knowing where home is, but understanding the story continues.