Memoir, of course, is a venerable genre. It’s been around a while. The first guy to hunker down and scratch a few words in the dirt, ten to one he was writing about himself. Here’s what I saw, here’s what I felt. Judging by recent headlines, however, the breed is in the midst of taking a beating. Poor James Frey in his million little maligned pieces, the latest bad-assed spoiled rich kid to bleed all the way to the bank. What is it about telling our own story that makes us want to oversensationalize, inflate our own egos with endless puffs of hot air? Augusten Burroughs, running with the scissors that his foster family swears up and down were fabrications. Is it insecurity? Maybe our own lives really aren’t that important. Even here in Montana, Judy Blunt probably should have thought twice before writing that scene about her father-in-law going after her typewriter with a sledgehammer.
In this cynical atmosphere, the new memoir by Tom Groneberg, One Good Horse, (Scribner, $24) is a kind of palliative. It’s like running into a buddy you haven’t seen for a while, arguing about who can buy the first round. Ostensibly the story of a novice cowboy’s first foray into horse training, it’s rather more the portrait of a life, a cross-section of the quotidian struggles that make up the human condition. Like another instant Montana classic of memoir, Fred Haefele’s Rebuilding the Indian, Groneberg uses his narrative armature, his horse training, as an entrÃ©e into considerably larger issues. For instance: What does it mean to be a father, a husband, a friend? What are the duties that we bring to our lives, and what are our rewards?
“I think, perhaps for the first time, that I should have my own horse. If I walked out into a pasture with a halter, it would nicker and trot toward me. I wouldn’t have to decide which horse to saddle, which animal to trust. If I had a good horse, I could give it my life. I could ride it for years. We could grow old together. Then I would give it to Carter [his son]. His own horse, to ride, to have, because I know I will not always be there for him.ï¿½?
Superficially, it’s true that the average, page-flipping and blurb-reading browser might waffle over One Good Horse. The veneer of it is all about karaoke bars and job hunting, mornings spent feeding out bales of hay and an evening or two with the in-laws. Dig a little deeper, though, and you come to see, within these familiar totems, compelling reductions of all our days. As opposed to the over-sensationalized, truth-hedging memoirs that now top the bestseller list, Groneberg’s narrative quietly communicates a real sense of generosity, a vision of simply doing the best you can, making a hand out of the cards you’ve been dealt. It is, more than anything else, a calm meditation on relationships: A man to his horse, his friends, his family, his community.
Still in the midst of resetting his dials after losing both his ranch and then his job, he writes, “Maybe I can get a colt and remember what it is I love about being out in the west. The pieces of my life will fall into place again and everything will make sense.ï¿½? Shortly thereafter, he comes across another memoir, Teddy “Blue” Abbott’s We Pointed Them North. One of the tent poles of Montana’s literary canon, Groneberg uses WPTN as a counterpoint, describing its narrative to us in pieces, subtly couching his own experiences in the larger, historical context of Teddy Blue’s example. Groneberg aspires to being a cowboy in a long line of cowboys, a writer in an established tradition of western writers, and Teddy Blue gives him a place to hitch his figurative horse. “What can’t be reclaimed is the hole in my story, the empty space on that line that used to read ‘cowboy’ or ‘ranch hand’ or ‘man with horse.’ I need a new story.”
And so we’ve begun with these two narratives threads, first one and then the other – Groneberg’s horse training, and now Teddy Blue’s tale. We’re shortly given a third: The premature birth of Groneberg’s twin sons. “I phone grandparents and deliver the news. Carter watches cartoons. Jennifer nods off. Time disappears. In the tiny kitchen across the hall from Jennifer’s room, I raid the refrigerator for little packs of chocolate pudding, cups of ice chips, half-sized cans of lemon-lime soda and ginger ale. Just before dinner, I scrub my hands and put on another gown and visit the boys again. Someone has taped a card over each isolette, one reading Avery, the other Bennett. This is me, I think. This is my life.”
The pediatrician, “a confident doctor, reassuring, with short strawberry blond hair and a warm smile,” says, “‘I’d like to do some tests on Avery.” She explains that “there is a particular crease in his palm that she is concerned about, and that his ears seem to be set a little low on his face.” As privileged readers, we discover, together with Groneberg and his wife, that their beautiful new son has been born with Down syndrome. “Jennifer and I hold each other and we cry. We grieve for Avery, for his future. Or maybe our sadness is for ourselves, for the loss of who we thought we were. We thought it didn’t matter, this notion of perfect children. At less than a week old, Avery has been labeled, limited, his life foreclosed on, his future told by a crease in his tiny palm.” It is a measure of the strength muscling through Groneberg’s deceptively simple prose that our hearts break right along with theirs.
In tackling memoir, it’s not enough to say that one has simply lived, that you were here next door, microwaving leftovers and filling parking spaces. You’re asking a complete stranger to spend time with your life, after all; you need to convince them that something here is important. Fame does the trick, Ã¡ la Bill and Hillary Clinton, George Carlin. Travelogues have wheels as well (although less so now than before, what with all the deserts having already been explored). Harrowing experiences (drugs, sexual abuse) and professional expertise both usually suffice. But it is, to my mind, much more difficult to write a compelling story out of the bare bones of the unexceptional. Here is a view of the world from where I’m standing, and it’s one I’d like to share.
A slim enough book (considering the roiling issues in the subtext), and conversational, adept in its voice, One Good Horse is finally that rarest of literary creations: It’s true.