An essayist challenges expectations of “truth” and “clarity” as he frequently finds himself in a state of flux.
At the beginning of his latest, Church (One with the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters Between Humans and Animals, 2016, etc.) provides the key to how his work differs from essayistic convention, how “clarity…seems not only highly overrated as a state of mind, but also anathema to the origins of the essay, which saw the form as an exercise in self-doubt and noble confusion.” Noble or not, confusion runs rampant through the early essays, in which reflection rarely proceeds to clarity; often, the author doesn’t seem to know what he thinks about what has happened until well after the fact. Though he describes these essays as outliers that didn’t fit thematically into earlier collections, they hold together fairly well, reading as much like a memoir as an essay collection. Most are set in Colorado and farther West, as Church chronicles the various jobs he worked while finishing his graduate education. He proceeds from the ambivalences of courtship through marriage, fatherhood, and divorce, until the concluding, almost stream-of-consciousness “Overpass Into Fog”: “suspended between past and future, I disappeared into language and place, weather and love, and I wondered how close I’d come to flying totally untethered, released from the bonds of concrete reality.” In many of the essays, Church is bridging, or straddling, or in between something and something else. “We’re all sort of in-between things or just starting something new, definitely in a period of proverbial flux; and we’re still getting used to the changes,” he writes in setting the scene in the powerful title essay, which follows the author’s witnessing a boy’s drowning. He was unable to help, and the experience returns the death of Church’s brother painfully to his consciousness. Fatherhood fills him with fear, much of which he shares in these pages.
Less interior reflection than an uneven but intermittently potent stumble toward a path into an uncertain future.