In his debut work of nonfiction, poet and academic Giscombe (English/Penn. State Univ.) searches for a possible 19th-century ancestor, a Jamaican miner and explorer whose surname, Giscombe, has become `affixed to the geography` of British Columbia.
Giscombe divides his memoir into numerous sections, but one serves as the principal string threading the beads of the myriad memories and musings that comprise this remarkable, moving work. These `Winter in Fort George` sections (Giscombe distributes more than half-a-dozen of them throughout) provide the closest thing to a traditional narrative structure, but even they sometimes wander off into unknown or unexpected territory—just as Giscombe himself is apt to do as he pursues by foot, bicycle, car, train, and airplane his ancestors and his interests, from Jamaica to British Columbia to Cornell to Illinois and Alaska. He writes that he endeavors `to live at some extremity, at places where my mortality might be visible to me.` Giscombe’s search for his obscure ancestor—for the reasons that a town, a rapids, a canyon bear his name—fuels an explosion of words and ideas that traditional organization cannot hope to contain. He moves effortlessly through time, back and forth and back again—each crafted sentence a wave that brings to shore a dazzling bounty of beauty and surprise. Such an array of subjects! From films by Chaplin to jazz by Miles Davis to bears, crocodiles, nighthawks, wolves, and foxes; from Chinese food in remote restaurants to family, race, sex (`Eros is eros, boys, everybody gets to play the fool`), pain, loss, the fraternity of cyclists, the inability of undergraduates to write essays, and meditations on the frailty of his own body (that `portable old site of my being alive`). As he considers the `tribes` that are our families, he concludes that each has `a lot of centers, a lot of stories, a lot of homeplaces and hearts.`
Masterful and mesmerizing; informative, rich, wise, and wonderful.