Charles M. Blow’s ‘Fire Shut Up in My Bones’
SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW, NYTimes.com 04/10/2014 21:18
reviewed by PATRICIA J. WILLIAMS OCT. 3, 2014
Charles Blow was only 24 when he was asked by The New York Times to direct its graphics department — apparently the youngest department head in the paper’s history. His elegant charts, distillations of political and social complexity, jolted readers with their logic, lucidity and sheer beauty. Before long, he ascended yet again, reinventing himself — and configuring a new genre of journalism — as the paper’s “visual Op-Ed columnist.”
Now Blow has written a complex bildungsroman of a memoir. “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” begins with the author’s childhood as the youngest son within a turbulent yet essentially loving household in the small, segregated town of Gibsland, La. It ends shortly after he graduates from college, deposited at the start of what most of us know to be a meteoric career — yet a career that, at least in this context, feels like a resting place after the roller coaster of his maturation.
Blow’s memoir borrows heavily from the rhetorical structure of a jeremiad, as its title implies. The line is from the Book of Jeremiah: “If I say, ‘I will not remember him / Or speak anymore in his name,’ / Then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire / Shut up in my bones; / And I am weary of holding it in, / And I cannot endure it.” In the American context, the jeremiad is a sermon practiced by generations of political orators, from the Puritans to Martin Luther King Jr. Its elements include a lengthy lamentation, cresting in a battle of polarities — classically between spirit and flesh — and ending with the triumph of one over the other.
True to that tradition, “Fire” opens with a crisis of opposites: a brief but powerful prologue in which Blow picks up a gun with the intention of killing someone. He follows this up with as succinct a setup as ever there was: “The first memory I have in the world is of death and tears. That is how I would mark the beginning of my life: the way people mark the end of one.” For the next 200 pages, we are left on the precipice of that murderous rage, trembling yet confident it will be overcome somehow — this is a story of self-discovery after all, and we have faith. If it is clear that the object of his rage will live, the real drama lies in not knowing how Blow himself will survive. That moment with the gun remains frozen in the reader, hovering over the narrative retreat into the events leading up to that terrible edge. This is a story that builds and overwhelms; it’s filled with a gathering roar, like an oncoming hurricane. By the last chapter, the tension explodes — like a bubble, not a gun — and drops into a quiet sea of inner peace.
Indeed, there is a surprising placidity at Blow’s core; he seems to find the eye of each storm in which to stand. Amid tensely negotiated extremes of life and death, love and hate, poverty and excess, violence and restraint, Blow exhibits a remarkably disciplined mind, and an early talent for art. Even as a very young child, he designed alternate universes instead of yielding to despair. There are none of Blow’s signature illustrations in this book, yet somehow it is still a visually graphic text. The ideas are rendered first in compact little packets that magically unfold, popping into being as vivid and distinct as origami flowers.
The trajectories of Blow’s life are littered with less fortunate possibilities — there were many easier, more dangerous ways to go. He grows up amid mean if not absolute poverty; he is molested both by a cousin and by an uncle; his father is distant, an alcoholic; and his parents separate under circumstances that involve his mother waving a gun about on more than one occasion. At the same time, there is a well of unconditional sustenance. His grandparents adore him. If life is chaotic, he is consistently fed. His pistol-packing mother is fiercely curious and educates herself over decades, like the tortoise that wins the race: While raising five children, she earns her bachelor’s degree; she later gets her master’s, runs for the school board and wins. In primary school, Blow is such an unusually quiet child that he is tossed by a careless teacher into the “slow” class, and his determined mother fishes him out. Given an I.Q. test, he is recognized as so gifted that a special teacher, provided by the district, is dispatched to his school once a week to instruct him. He marches onward to college.
Blow’s life is remarkable not just for such pendular experiences, but for the chasmic distances between one pole and another. He is even, at one point, recruited by the C.I.A. After he is flown to Virginia for an interview and the requisite lie detector test, the powerful contradictions he holds within himself erupt: “Have you ever had sex with a man?” the interrogator demands. Blow recalls, in an excruciating flash, the assault by his cousin. A tortured pause. “No,” he responds. The machine insists otherwise. Blow asks the agent to repeat the question and answers “Yes” this time. Again, the machine insists otherwise. “I thought in that moment, I will never be free,” he writes. “It took a machine designed to catch liars to help me see that I didn’t yet know my own truth.”
For all the betrayals by others, the greater tension revolves around his own betrayal of his best principles. After enduring a vicious series of beatings-qua- fraternity-hazing in his freshman year of college, Blow submits to and joins the culture of brotherly cruelty for a while. Then, during one night of “testing,” he chases a terrified fraternity pledge down a road that turns out to be an airstrip. An airplane passes overhead, “the deep roaring whistle of the engines like a breath blown across the mouth of a Coke bottle. The plane was flying so low I was sure a sharp-eyed passenger could see us. . . . Seeing the plane and imagining its passengers and the folks milling about in the terminals — just those images of humanity — stopped me long enough to ask myself, What am I doing?. . . I had gone from the bottom of the male hierarchy to the top of it, and all it had required was the complete suffocation of my soul.”
This reflection leads to the most intriguing of the splits in this book: the confrontation with his sexuality. In some ways, he suffers from an almost classically Freudian angst in the wake of molestation as a 7-year-old, as well as the searing betrayal by an admired older role model. Blow was also positioned as an easy target for all sorts of violation. He was left on his own much of the time, and his longing for affection was aggressively bounded by Scriptural threats about hellfire and the irrevocability of transgression.
But Blow’s crisis is also an existential one, about cultures of masculinity. He marries. He divorces. He entertains the possibility that he is bisexual, an issue that refuses neat resolution. More clearly, however, his confusion about his sexuality operates as a symbolic middle ground between all the other dualities presented in this book: murder and suicide, mind and matter, right and wrong, traumatized silence and voluble confession.
Irreducible opposites may shape the world of his youth, but his pilgrimage, his progress, is neither that of the Puritan nor that of the fundamentalist churches in which he was raised. Blow’s memoir is an unconventional jeremiad, in that it resists the exclusions of “either-or.” The conflicts central to humanity are reconfigured here as fields of simple possibility: of compromise, of forgiveness, of eternal incompletion, of the fire unleashed at long last from our bones.
FIRE SHUT UP IN MY BONES
By Charles M. Blow
228 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $27.
Patricia J. Williams is a professor at Columbia Law School, a columnist for The Nation and the author of “The Alchemy of Race and Rights.”
A version of this review appears in print on October 5, 2014, on page BR14 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Putting Down the Gun.
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