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Book Review, Part III: 'Rattlesnake Daddy'
July 29, 2011 - 5:01pm

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Rattlesnake Daddy: A Son’s Search for His Father, by Brent Spencer. The Backwaters Press (2011). $25.00 paper.

***

Here I’d like to return briefly to Rattlesnake Daddy, a memoir I reviewed a few days ago.

Any book review is itself the memoir of navigating a text in which an author has tried to chart his or her interior life. Readers reading the reviewer’s shaping of the memory of reading the author’s reconstruction of memories of original perceptions of actual events is like using one of those misshapen maps of North America on which cartographers perpetuated oddities such as the island of California. “There Be Monsters Here!” we cry, one after another, none of us perhaps having seen the beasties too closely, and which may turn out to have been only a poor manatee nuzzling sea lettuce.

The monster in this book is Brent Spencer’s father, Commander Robert Spencer, USN (shown here circa 1963 at the Purdue Engineering Wall of Fame). That he was (is?) a monster I have no real doubt, though the evidence is largely on the lyrical end of the Joycean spectrum—memories of the feelings of a child at the mercy of a sadistic, violent parent. That is, I don’t have any real reason to doubt the apparent facts of the case: Child abuse, multiple families, interpretations of incestuous overtures. Yet I find myself feeling guilty for wondering if all the events in the book played out exactly as Spencer seems to believe, or even what it is Spencer thinks happened at key moments in his journey to discover something true about his dead(?) estranged father.

Some diffuse quality of the book, relatable to Joyce’s conditions of art that I brought up in my previous post, how “the artist prolongs and broods upon himself as the centre of an epical event,” leaves me unsettled. It’s an admittedly odd reader response, to enjoy and feel deeply aspects of the book, especially the prose on the line level, and to believe base facts necessary to the overall story, yet to feel hesitant to accept the presentation of many of the specifics of the contemporary frame.

In this I was reminded of recent creative nonfiction writing workshops in which even student commenters couldn’t believe they were saying things aloud such as, “I don’t think this essay is ‘nonfiction,’ because no one tips a bartender more than the bill itself, as it’s portrayed.” Even as they spoke they knew that couldn’t be correct—they knew their peer was a successful, even charming bartender, and they themselves visited bars and paid tabs—but there was something about the writing that imposed doubt generally, and the doubt fixed vociferously to one slim fact.

The problem here is not that getting “impersonal” in the Joycean sense—“vitality… fills every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible esthetic life [and the] personality of the artist…refines itself out of existence”— triggers disbelief in a genre (nonfiction) that readers believe should be “personal.” Indeed, the problem may be when the author has not entered a text deeply enough, which becomes a specialized issue of ethos in creative nonfiction.

Take for instance the portrayal of author Brent Spencer’s naiveté throughout the memoir, used as grown-up parallel to his former child-self’s innocence. (Both tack toward ruin and leave shame in their wake.) While children are assumed to be innocent until proven otherwise, the adult author’s naiveté is harder to take in the context of contemporary events. “You’re married?” Spencer says in disbelief to a John drinking in a Mexican brothel. Then, to us, after supposedly catching himself: “I’m so stupid somebody ought to shoot me.”

Is it possible to be this naive in middle age? I guess, but what’s it say about your perceptive ability or your authority as a literary writer to include that in the machinery of the memoir? (Maybe I missed something, but the book seems to be written as if the frame action takes place very recently. Only by searching around online did I realize the journey of discovery is set 20 years ago, when the author was in his late 30s.) As a reader I tend to look for shades of Terence (“I am a man, I consider nothing that is human alien to me”) in writers. And because I, like Spencer, have been around the block not once but twice—he claims this geographical region as his own—I grow impatient and wonder if the naiveté is a pose.

There is the possibility of course that this kind of thing is a pose, meant to make us him: Spencer feels frustration at not-knowing in his life, so we are meant to feel parallel frustration when we encounter his naiveté while reading the book. (Art is an infection, Tolstoy says.)

Similarly, any doubt we feel at what he says about his father might mimics the disconnect of others’ views of Spencer’s father in life as “good,” even heroic, and certainly not evil, which surely made Spencer’s hurt all the worse. (See half-brother Bob Spencer’s tribute to their father here, which posits heroism in the sailboat accident that Brent Spencer never suggests in the memoir.)

It’s even possible that the disjointed, inconclusive evidence (and seeming sidebar experiences) that Spencer gathers in his odyssey is meant to portray life as being merely one damned thing after another. If traditional narrative’s intent to find significance, order and consequence in the world is false, then this narrative, lacking coherence, must be true. If any of these manipulations are intended, they are only marginally effective.

As I read the book I opened a file in my mind, labeled What I Don’t Understand. An item: Some of father Robert Spencer’s writing, salvaged from the sailboat he died on, is dropped sporadically into Brent Spencer’s memoir, often with no cues to indicate what the author feels he’s showing us. One long story written by the father is about being an officer on a Swift Boat during the Vietnam War. The tough-guy language and near-impossible details—far upriver they send a single sailor (seemingly a crewman, not a SEAL) ashore to destroy an enemy ammo cache—make it seem that the father had been attempting to write a bad adventure novel. (“From the papers of Commander Robert Cornelius Spencer,” the section ends.) I was pretty sure on first reading that Brent Spencer meant this to serve as Example A: Dad’s Full of Crap, Again.

Jasmo [the lone sailor sent ashore a few hours earlier, who has “a face like a sweaty fist”] held out the AK. “Took me a while to find just the right souvenir.”

He was back safe and sound. Turned out it was an ammo dump all right, and a heavily guarded one. The VC’d caught him and made him dig a ten-foot[! !] pit, then thrown him in, posting an armed guard above. When he saw his chance, he made his move. “The dirt was so soft,” he said, “I could climb the wall of the pit like a ladder.” He’d opened his man’s gullet and inflicted a few more sore throats on a couple of others. That boy was tough.

This sort of thing goes on for pages without Brent Spencer’s commentary or intervention. Who is it we end up thinking is full of crap? Jasmo with his 10-foot pit, dug in an hour or two in the roots under triple-canopy jungle, and his armed VC, who evidently left Jasmo with a knife and watched as he climbed out of the pit to kill them all with it? Or Dad for trying to pass this off as believable heroism? There’s one other candidate, which isn’t good for the book.

Son Brent seems to buy into the story and later in his book goes out of his way—literally—to corroborate as much of this aspect of his father’s military life as he can. “How can I resist?” he says. He talks with one old guy who says he was a Beach Jumper with his father. “You were spies,” Spencer accuses, somewhat hopefully. “You’re saying my father was a spy.” The old man corrects him: No, they were “tricksters,” electronically and otherwise “drawing attention away from the true assault.” He describes their mission in what sounds like WWII-era, not Mekong/Vietnam, terms: “We’d do crazy stuff like drag a blimp behind a small boat to enlarge our radar image, purposely drawing fire from the enemy.” Later, describing their lives on Swift boats in Vietnam, he says, “The rest of the crew called us ‘science majors.’ That was your dad and me.”

The old man tells Spencer he has something he’d like to give him. He retrieves a Beach Jumper Unit One shoulder patch, which he says he had made for himself. “It’s not official or anything,” he says. The design is the mask of comedy on a large number one. (Actually, the US Navy Beach Jumpers Association website shows the dates of Robert Spencer’s service [with Beach Jumper Unit Two, not One]) as 1954-56, which missed WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. But having myself been an Army Diver who grated his teeth when official records recorded with a single typo that I was a “Driver,” I’m willing to assume Robert Spencer was in Vietnam as he—and more importantly the author—claimed.) Remember that patch.

So what gives here? Was any of the tough-guy Jasmo stuff real, and with it the rest of the father’s story about taking command from the captain of the PBR that night and saving the entire crew? The book never helps us know whether it’s all crap or all truth or anything between. In fact, the memoir has a willful streak throughout that insures we—like the author—will never know enough to feel comfortable. Should I, for instance, credit the assumption that the elder Spencer served in Vietnam? Maybe not. The author puts in a Freedom of Information Act inquiry:

[T]he most startling secret that turns up will be that he was an uncooperative patient for the Navy dentists. Top Secret work. Right. Does this mean that it’s all a lie? Or that his secrets were so important they don’t even show up in a search, not even as pages of blacked-out text? I don’t know. I don’t know anything. After all this time, my father is a bigger mystery than ever.

What are we to do with the stuff about Dad (maybe) setting his papers on fire at work and dancing naked around the flames, and the (definite) visit to the home afterward by state police who suggest he may be a danger to himself? What about his supposed secret work on “kinetic energy weapons…God Rods…hypervelocity rod bundles”? The memoir’s way to keep us in the dark on all this, unconsciously or not, is to show the author going to White Sands Missile Testing Range, drunk and angry, demanding to know about his father, and (of course) being thrown out without answers.

Writing is a series of choices, and Spencer might have summed up the drunken incident, portrayed the barriers of security around the facility and used them as metaphor for how we can’t know each other, in part due to partitioning and sometimes collusion by social groups that include government, military, friends, and family. Instead, without an investment in the author’s own understanding, it reads like a Hunter Thompson fantasy in service to making the son a doppleganger to his father. This is a narrative risk in a book that claims dad came to you psychotically in the night with his KA-BAR.

And what of the Evil Jimmy Buffets, as I came to think of them, shadowy military/government men in Hawaiian shirts who apparently follow the author on his aimless journey to see places where his dad used to hang out? They catch him twice in Mexico, get a little rough, say cryptic things such as, “Here’s today’s lesson, Professor. You came here for the wrong reason. Go home,” and, “Do not doubt this…You are about to step into some deep shit. And once stepped in, it cannot be unstepped in. I hope that provides you with the clarification you require. Good day, sir.”

I’m afraid to admit to Evil Jimmy that I could use a little more clarification, actually, starting with what Spencer really thinks it means that at least one of these guys has a tattoo with the same design as that patch. Remember the patch? And then the autopsy reveals his father had the same tattoo that looks like the patch? The author throws a lot of these paranoid incidents out there as if dramatizing something—Joyce’s highest evolution of art, after all—but what is he dramatizing? Elsewhere there’s a second old veteran who (maybe) served with his father. The man lives in the California desert in a “pink stucco nightmare with barred front windows and a huge radio antennae standing on the roof.” He tells Brent Spencer to come on out to talk, but when the author gets there, the man goes cryptically silent. “Did they get to you?” Spencer asks. “Those guys with the buzz-cuts? Did they tell you not to talk to me?”

He looks at me hard. "You need to think before you speak. You know? And then you need to not speak.”

That’s it, and I don’t get it. Of all the things I might not believe in the book, I don’t believe this shadowy government stuff the most, not for a second. Why in the world would, say, veterans of a specialized unit, or the FBI, or the NSA, or anybody, care about this dead man’s son roaming around Mexican bars? The book tries to imply that at any moment the author might push the right button and, with the snapping-open of locks and the grinding of rusty gears, the glittering secret of…what? will appear. What? The Holy Grail? Ark of the Covenant? Temple Stones? Lost son Mutt? What? What?

On the other hand, both Ernest Hemingway and John Lennon believed to their consternation that they were being followed and wiretapped by the FBI. Everybody around them told them they were crazy, delusional, megalomaniacal. Both were being followed, it turns out, by the FBI. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, as the saying goes.

See what this kind of thing does to you? I feel like my students decrying a tip that’s more than the bar tab.

What are we to do with the father’s years-long plan to steal a Chinese junk (why a junk?) late in life? “We’ll take on the Chinese pirates and fight our way out of the hostile waters of Shanghai harbor,” the father tells his son. “Sure, Dad,” the author replies. “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.” “And that’s how we left it, with no other words spoken, no arrangements made.” Except dad did call from the San Jose airport a month later:

“Son! Where are you? I’m here with the rest of the crew! We’re waiting on you! Hurry, boy! Zero hour is at hand!” And then the line went dead.

And so it does, for us, with no other resolution. What could all this mean? Where in reality are we? Things become so indeterminate, and not in an interesting way, that it seems dad may be alive after all, that the photo provided by the Coast Guard is faked. “Is my dad really dead?” the author asks the vet in the pink stucco house.

His gaze traces a broad arc through the high, hot sky. When he levels it at me, it’s as though he’s aiming a gun. “You know, son, they don’t call it ‘special’ warfare for nothing. OK?”

And nothing else. The narrative leaves some—some!—room for some—some!—of this to be a mental construction by author Spencer. Before I finished the book I leafed through and saw a chapter titled “Breakdown” and thought the memoir was going to be about the author’s psychotic break after abuse and grief, and ultimately his recovery that allowed him to write the book about his delusions. There is, after all, more than one Luke I Am Your Son moment in the book, in which Brent discovers how alike he and his father were. Those have to do with aliens in one case, and in another a different sort of shadowy figure who sometimes pays anonymously for the father’s and the son’s meals in diners. Yet the breakdown motif is a red herring.

The most thoroughly dramatized sections in the memoir, such as a snake-handling tent revival scene, leave no room whatsoever for feeling adrift. As I read, this scene made me think 1) It was written first and worked on longest; in fact the acknowledgment page says it was one of two chapters in the book published in lit mags prior to publication of the book. And, 2) This section has either been fictionalized or else was filmed as it happened, which became source material for the writing. The section is so rich in detail that a preacher is quoted directly with such specificity as this:

“It ain’t the sinner God hates,” he said. “It’s the sin! But if you have not fessed up to your sinfulness, then, dear ones, you are nothing more than sin itself! You are sin! Walking, talking sin!” He loosened his tie and unbuttoned his collar, giving relief to his rubbery neck. He shook his head. “But lay your heavy heart at the feet of the Redeemer, and ye shall know peace everlasting, glory everlasting! Repent, remit, and relax into the ever-lovin’ arms of Jesus Christ!”

There are nine extraordinarily-rendered pages of this, and I was surprised to feel myself suspecting that too. I’m usually irritated when nonfiction writers write prefaces explaining to me, as if I were a child, that Grandma might not have been wearing a polka-dot dress in the big scene where she buys a new Studebaker. But the snake-handling scene adds to my generalized doubt.

In the end I don’t know what to tell you about specific facts of this memoir or what they portend for its people: Dad’s picking up young women on the road; the cannibals and their prized “heart’s grease-sack for honored guests”; whether dad does or doesn’t appear in the desert night with all the other illegal border-crossers. This is no “me-moir”; it’s not vampiric in its need to gain energy from pain. It’s too generous for that, but not generous enough to full succeed. Put another way, Spencer doesn’t always transmute his personality well enough for his material to become a “fluid and lambent narrative,” as Joyce says, and it rarely evolves to the level of the impersonal.

This may sound like a different book from the one I reviewed last week, but it’s not. The language is often accomplished, the images often crisp (the father in the autopsy photo is “still wet, pulled like a marlin fresh from the sea”) and the realizations about the emotional relationship of father and son poignant:

Didn’t you know? Doesn’t any father ever know? You were the sun, moon, and stars to me. You were the air I breathed and the blood pumping through my veins. You were the sky over my head and the ground under my feet. The weather in your eye meant everything to me. You dope. You jerk.

The best of this book is father as loose baggy monster of contingent traits, to paraphrase Henry James. As Brent Spencer writes, “Every father is part hero, part villain, part thrill-ride, part fun-house scare.”

Memoir shares something with the roman à clef. Supposedly one of the pleasures of that novel form is the recognition of real persons in thinly-veiled fictional characters. But Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein was so enjoyable that I was two-thirds of the way through before it occurred to me to check the reviews, where I discovered that Ravelstein is Bellow’s friend Allan Bloom. Bellow’s authorial sympathy, his complexity and contradictions, the firmness with which he holds us in place even as mysteries and indeterminacies pass, are so brilliant one doesn’t go looking for other layers of real. Nonfiction should do this, shouldn’t it? Head us off at the Pass of Demands?

I think Rattlesnake Daddy is flawed. But if you had a father—or didn’t, for much of your life, like Brent Spencer and me—you might want to read this book and decide for yourself.

 

 

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