Alan Catlin Book Review
by Charles Rammelkamp
Books of the Dead by Alan Catlin
Alan Catlin’s poignant, grim memoir, Books of the Dead, is a two-part reflection on the death of his mother in 1985 (The New York City Book of the Dead) and his father and stepmother in 2004 (The Central Florida Book of the Dead). The total effect is sobering. Both narratives, with verse, involve heartache and reflection on the ultimate destiny that faces us all.
Anybody familiar with the small press surely has read Alan Catlin’s work. He’s all over the place with poems, stories, essays, reviews, chapbooks, etc. Catlin’s memoir here feels like it could have been plucked straight out of The Chiron Review, and indeed, parts of this book were published in different forms elsewhere in the samizdat press. Which may be a clue as to what to expect.
The part about his mother is twice as long as the one about his father. There is more than twice as much to say about her. Betty Jane Catlin was schizophrenic, spent years as a “patient” at Pilgrim State, the mental hospital on Long Island. She died alone in her room at the Martha Washington Hotel for Women in Manhattan, her body riddled with cancer that she was in denial about having.
The New York City Book of the Dead largely takes place in Betty Jane’s (“BJC,” as he calls her) room – Room 641 – where Alan and his wife sift through piles and piles of hoarded junk in search of necessary legal and financial documents. They’ve come down from Schenectady to attend to the consequences of his mother’s death.
While going through the piles of accumulated tinfoil cigarette package liners, racing forms, letters, paper bags, overwhelming boxes of stuff, Catlin recalls various episodes from his mother’s life; stirring up the detritus (Catlin’s word) in her room stirs up memories of strange, often violent behavior. At one point, Betty Jane almost killed her mother by strangling her. At another she did the same to Alan’s wife. He had to physically restrain her and tossed her out of their home, telling her she was unwelcome there.
And yet, she had begun life as a gifted, talented girl. The thumbnail sketch Catlin paints of his mother in an opening poem, “From Bubbles to Bag Lady,” says it all:
In the yearbook she was:
athletic, cheerful, class brain,
“smooches in the hallway,”
National Honor Society, Softball,
Field Hockey, Band, Chorus,
Spanish Club, Latin Club,
Salutatorian. Played the classics
as privately taught prize pupil,
blue ribbon winner, on a Steinway
grand. Owned reams of bound
annotated scores: the Germans,
Austrians, Russians, pencil marked
in the margins with a short hand of
her own devising. Was an amanuensis
to voices no one else could hear:
“Inscribe the secrets. No one else must
ever learn the truth.”
Where did it all go wrong?
Where did it all go wrong, indeed? The clue is in the voices only she could hear, which were constantly talking to her.
By contrast, Catlin’s father’s death is a sad tale of the process of aging. Where his mother’s death reads something like a dramatic blowout from a Saul Bellow novel (Humboldt’s Gift vividly comes to mind), his father Bill and stepmother Doris die twenty years later in a Florida where retirees go for just that purpose. The Central Florida Book of the Dead takes place largely in nursing homes, hospital emergency wards, in the suburban central Florida wasteland where seniors go to die. The poem “Golden Years” describes it all:
What a joke!
The health care
and all they leave
us is the years.”
Again, the grim necessities of making legal and financial decisions come into focus as Alan tries to settle his family. Time and again they run into the roadblock of: “According to Florida Law….
The Central Florida Book of the Dead takes place over the course of six months at the start of 2004, first with his father’s death and proceeding with other sad deaths over that span of time, poet friends and colleagues as well as his stepmother Doris and other retirees in Deltona.
This memoir ends with Alan and his wife saying goodbye to Vera, another elderly Floridian, and having the premonition they will never see her again, alive.
And they don’t.
My only complaint about Books of the Dead is that it could have been copy-edited more carefully. Some glaring typos detract from the presentation. Take the concluding couplet from “On Visiting the Campus where My Mother Went to College,” which brings part one, The New York City Book of the Dead, to an end:
I have been there, and I can take you there
of you care to go.
Ooof! Presumably the second line should start with “if.” Mistakes like this are annoyingly all over. On the other hand, this sloppiness unintentionally gives the memoir that feeling a handheld camera gives in cinema verité of raw emotion, “in your face.” This book is not for the faint-hearted. Nothing “feel good” about it