Saturday, December 15, 2012

Gregory Gibson's Gone Boy: A Memorial

The following is a review of my friend Greg Gibson’s book, Goneboy, published in 1999, by Kodansha International. The book documents Greg’s attempt to come to grips with the murder of his son Galen, a student at Simon’s Rock College, by another student, who went on a shooting rampage on December 14, 1992 that left Galen and a professor dead, while wounding three other students and a security guard. “After Galen died,” Greg told reporter Gail McCarthy of the Gloucester (MA) Daily Times, “I was so full of anger at all the conditions that caused his death. So I started investigating the story of what happened to my son, about America, about guns, about violence.” My review of Greg’s book appeared in the Gloucester Times of September 22, 1999. I post it here in the wake of yet another mass murder on a school campus, this time the senseless killing of twenty elementary school children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, twenty years after the Simon's Rock killings. Greg’s courageous inquiry into guns, violence and manhood in America still has much to teach us.

What is a parent’s greatest fear? If my own dread is any indication, it’s that something terrible will happen to one’s children, something disastrous like an incurable illness or fatal accident. It’s bad enough when the kids are near us, at school or playing with their friends, even off on a date. But once they leave home, a parent is often haunted by the fear of that late night telephone call, delivering news of the unthinkable.
On the night of December 14, 1992, Gloucester bookseller Gregory Gibson and his wife Anne Marie Crotty received such a call. It came from the dean of Simon’s Rock College in Western Massachusetts, where the Gibson’s oldest son Galen was an undergraduate. The dean told them, in Gibson’s words, that “there’d been a terrible accident at the college, and my son had been shot and killed.”
Gibson continues:
“Somehow, on the small sleepy campus of Simon’s Rock College, a student had gone crazy. Somehow he’d ordered bullets thought the mail. Then he’d gone to a local gun shop and bought a military style semiautomatic rifle. Somehow he got the gun back onto school grounds, undetected. At about 10:15…he began walking through the campus, shooting people.”
The student’s name was Wayne Lo. Six years earlier he had emigrated with his family from Taiwan. First he shot and seriously wounded the guard at the college’s front gate. Then he murdered a professor who was driving past. Next, he walked to the library where he murdered Gibson’s son and wounded another student. Before surrendering, he wounded two more students. Unharmed, he was finally arrested.
What is a parent to do with this devastating news? How can a family face the unthinkable suddenly made manifest? What happens to them? How do they go on living in the face of such a stunning loss?
Greg Gibson answers these questions, and many more, in Goneboy, his powerful account of a parent’s search for the truth in his son’s murder, published this month by Kodansha International.
As anyone who has suffered loss can attest, the real grieving sets in after the funeral, once the friends and relatives who have come to comfort you have returned to their own lives.
After Galen’s funeral and his burial near the Gibson home in Lanesville, after the “huge, sad memorial service” that most of Gloucester attended (we felt that Galen was our child too), the Gibsons began their grieving. “And for three years or more,” Greg writes, “Annie and I gave a good part of our lives over to grief… We knew that if we did our grief sincerely enough and well enough we’d come out on some other side where we wouldn’t constantly need to be doing it.”
The fact that the Gibsons had two other children, their daughter Celia and son Brooks, played no small role in the family’s recovery.
“At first we simply assumed our lives were over,” Gibson writes with the poignant honesty that marks his entire narrative. “It meant little to us personally, if we lived or died. Then we remembered that we still had two children who were dependent upon us and who had lives that were not over. Brooks and Celia still needed to be hugged, yelled at, played with and driven around. We still had important things to do. We did indeed have something to live for. Therefore our lives were not over.”
It was this powerful sense of family, of every member’s need to survive the loss of Galen, each in his or her own way, that set the Gibsons on the path to healing. But there was another dimension to the healing, as Greg tells it:
“Annie and I had a deep-seated need to learn all the facts surrounding Galen’s murder. Although we were very different people in many ways, we shared the same basic values. One of these was a belief in the redemptive power of truth. If the truth didn’t always set us free, at least it kept us clean and made our lives less complicated.”
The Gibson’s had already learned enough about poor decisions made by college officials, which contributed to the murder of their son. This led to their initiating a civil suit. “Part of our anger at Simon’s Rock College,” Gibson writes, “and one of the main reasons for the lawsuit, was our belief that they had failed to respect our need for the truth.”
But the Gibsons also knew that important factual information they needed, in order to gain a fuller understanding of the events and decisions that led to Galen’s death, might better emerge from the criminal trial that was slated to begin in Springfield, MA. With this in mind, along with an understanding that their own psychic survival of Galen’s death depended in large part on the resolution of a number of vexing questions about both the murderer and the context of the crime, the Gibsons moved temporarily to Springfield to begin the ordeal of listening daily in court to the details surrounding the loss of their son.
Still, it wasn’t enough for Greg to attend passively. Each morning he brought a notepad to court, recording as much as he could about what was going on. Then at night he’d transcribe his notes into the computer.
“It felt surprisingly good to work up these courtroom notes, to get some sense of the form of the proceedings, to be doing something with what was going on,” Greg writes. “In fact, the activity transformed me. Instead of being a victim of the trial, instead of being a passive recipient of all this painful and difficult information, I could take an active role. I was reporting the trial.”
Unhappily, the trial didn’t provide the resolution Greg devoutly wished for, nor did the civil suit, which got bogged down in technicalities. Even though he pled insanity, Wayne Lo was finally convicted of murder and sent to prison for life. Yet Galen was still dead and many of Greg’s questions remained unanswered. At that point he decided to take matters into his own hands.
“Wayne Lo was locked up,” he writes. “There was nothing more I could do about him.” But Gibson continued to be furious at Bernie Rogers, the college dean, who he felt “had mishandled things on the day of the shootings, and for the way he tried to avoid responsibility for what I considered to be his bad decisions. I was furious at the college for trying to slither out of the lawsuit.”
It was then that Greg decided to use the hundreds of pages of notes he’d taken at the criminal trial. But he’d go beyond the trial. He’d conduct his own personal investigation of the case. He’d make his notes the basis of a far more thorough study. Gibson also knew, or intuited, that the truth, if he were to grasp it, lay beyond legal documents or court testimony. If anything, it lay somewhere out there in the nation itself.
“Now I thought I could see a solution,” he writes. “I’d write a book. If I couldn’t make it into a book, if it didn’t fit, or organize, or turn out that way, at least I’d be the world’s expert on the case…and I could say, ‘There. I’ve given it my best. Now I’m done.’”
That’s when he concluded “the story was out there on the road; right where I’d be all the time anyway. Finding those fugitive pieces of the story would be like discovering and snagging rare books.”
Gibson knew that his quest “would take long road hours, time spent in strange places with strange people, close attention to detail, and a good memory for odd bits of information.” Indeed, Gibson would become a detective in the storied American tradition of the “private eye.” He even imagined himself as a sort of Clint Eastwood character, or Lee Marvin in “Point Blank,” relentlessly searching for evidence. “All I wanted was a drink and some information. The evening had bad news written all over it.”
It’s here that the book’s adventure begins, and Gibson’s search for truth, his “walkabout” in the aboriginal sense of a vision quest or rite of purification, takes the reader to places one would not expect to travel.
Fearlessly, Gibson will track down direct or tangential participants in the case. He will enter the world of gun dealers and collectors, of anti-government conspiracies. He will literally gaze down the barrel of the weapon that killed his own son. Unflinchingly, this antiquarian book dealer will travel much of the length and breadth of America in search of knowledge that he hopes will set him and his family free.
In the process, Greg will retrace his own history and that of his nuclear family, and he will show us an America of small town hunters and big time shopping malls, an America, as he says, in which one place could easily be taken for another. “And if that was true, where did it leave me?”
Goneboy is ultimately about more than a man’s search for the truth in his son’s murder. It is a book about who we are and how we become that way. The journey it describes is one only the most courageous among us could undertake, whether outwardly to explore the vastness of the continent, or inwardly to seek those spaces where self-knowledge is born. In its form and its extraordinary prose; in the risks Gibson has taken, and in its searing record of what he has learned, Goneboy is a profoundly American book, a book in which the journey into the heart of the country leads to the discovery of oneself. It is my belief that it will also become a classic, redeeming the author and his family in their loss and pain, and the reader for having shared in the gift of its insights.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Immanence of God in the Tropics: A Review

Politics There and Here

The Immanence of God in the Tropics, by George Rosen, Leapfrog Press, Fredonia, NY, 170 pp., $15.95 (

In an age of multiple distractions, short stories continue to remain an enduring literary experience.  Whether we encounter them on the printed page or on the screens of our Kindles or iPads, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a well-wrought story, which rivets our attention, while taking us to places we’ve never been before, or introducing us to characters we have not previously met.
Fortunately, we also live in an age in which the short story has had an extraordinary renaissance, even though many of the form’s traditional venues have either disappeared or been transformed by the new digital technologies.  These days we’re probably more likely to read a short story through hand-held electronic devices than in a glossy magazine, with the exception of those important stand-bys, The New Yorker, The Atlantic or Harper’s.  Even many of the venerable literary or “little” magazines have either gone digital or boast a digital version, a boon perhaps for the reader on the run.
A happy antidote to the digitally downloadable story (it’s not for nothing that a new form has evolved called “the flash story), is the fact that many trade and small publishers continue to give us the real thing, an actual collection of stories by new or established writers; books that we can own and cherish, even if we read them on the subway or while waiting for a doctor’s appointment.

Such a book is Gloucester writer George Rosen’s The Immanence of God in the Tropics, a collection of seven stories of flawless craftsmanship with settings as intriguingly diverse as East Africa, Mexico and New England.  Rosen, a Harvard graduate and former Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, has traveled extensively in Africa, India, Central Asia and Mexico.  These stories reflect not only his actual immersion in the places he writes about, but his understanding of their internal politics and the ways those politics reflect international events. Rosen has worked equally as journalist, reporting on East Africa for The Atlantic and publishing in the New York Times.  In addition, he’s been a Boston Globe columnist and NPR commentator, experiences which deepen and inform his fiction.

Rosen is also the author of Black Money (1990), a beautifully written and highly original novel involving two Americans—one a teacher, the other a former Peace Corps volunteer—who find themselves drawn into a murderous plot involving smuggling, big game poaching, political corruption, and Eastern and Western cultures in conflict.   Like several of these new stories, Black Money has an East African setting.  And like the stories, Rosen’s prose is astringent while movingly lyrical, his dialogue unerring in its ability to suggest native speech, whether African, American or Indian.  Readers of The Immanence of God in the Tropics will want to read Black Money, in which many of the themes of these new stories are explored.  But the stories themselves stand powerfully and entrancingly on their own, even as they spin out some of the ethnic, moral, personal and political conflicts that are treated in the novel.

Of the seven stories in this collection, recently chosen as “Pick of the Week” by Publisher’s Weekly, four are set in Africa, two in New England, and one in Mexico. The first, “Our Big Game,” involves two Kenyan schools, which are rivals not only in soccer but in terms of the relationship between headmasters.  One of the masters, Gichuru, “an intelligent man with a dark, handsome African face that belongs on a coin,” had been a former student of the other, the imperious MacIntyre, who, according to the American teacher who recounts the story of MacIntyre’s defeat, both on the playing field and as a result of his personal avidity, “places on Gichuru’s shoulders the blame for all that has gone awry in East Africa for the past forty years.”
One of the two New England stories, “The Sauna after Ted’s Funeral,” involves four men, Alden, Squillace, Willi and Nutbrown.  The first three appear to be middle-aged; Nutbrown is older, “an aged angel consumed in God’s moist fire.”  They are taking a steam bath together in what could well be one of the traditional Finnish saunas of Lanesville or Rockport, Massachusetts, after burying their friend Ted.  Naked in the steam-filled space, their desultory talk circles around the task they have just completed: “They observed the flaccid muscles of their calves, their piebald reddening skin. The men on top stared at the skulls of the two on the bench below. The tips of their ears burned…” Suddenly, one of the men, Alden, stirred into remembrance by the alternating heat and cold of the sauna, begins to tell a story about an experience he had years before while working as an engineer in Mexico.  It is a story about a picnic in the country that turned into a disaster, during which Alden successfully rescued a young child from drowning.  His story over, the four men leave the warmth of the bath, venturing out into a gathering snow storm. Their sauna complete, there is no mention of their dead friend, only a lingering sense that in coming together in a ritual all five men must have shared for years, they have honored Ted’s memory.
Set in Mexico, “A Second Language,” is about Benson, a lonely American who goes to Oaxaca presumably to re-learn Spanish. Published first in the Harvard Review, this powerful story combines a scintillating concretion of places, objects, characters and atmosphere, along with the subtle unfolding of a narrative with profound implications about how we go about trying to recover what we aren’t often completely aware of having lost, or exactly how we’ve lost it.  Benson’s effort to reconnect with the “unaccountable sense of beginning” he had experienced in Mexico twenty years before with “his first, his only” wife, through an attempted recovery of a once-studied language and, equally, of a place, time and lost or squandered love, is incredibly moving.  As the story ends, we leave Benson, if not less lonely, at least in possession of what brought him back to Mexico: “Now he remembered it all; the wind, warm and powerful, scouring the marketplace; its touch on his skin, dry and restoring; the vision of hills beyond.”
This story is the crowning narrative in a collection of stories that may appear on their surface to be traditional in terms of theme, content or structure, but are in reality extremely modern in their approach, language and point of view.  Rosen is a brilliant practitioner of the form, a writer whose technique and inspiration are never on show, though powerfully implicit in every crackling sentence he writes, every nuance of character and shade of meaning.  Though we can imagine the writers he’s read in a lifetime of practicing the craft of fiction, the voice in these stories is unmistakably his own.  This is a collection that demands to be read and re-read.

This review appeared first in the December 2012 print edition of North Shore Art Throb.

George Rosen will be reading from and discussing The Immanence of God in the Tropics at the Gloucester Writers Center (Harbor Room, 8 Norwood Court, off East Main Street), on Wednesday, November 28 at 7:30 p.m.

Peter Anastas