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His Own Best Hope : NEW MOON By Richard Grossinger (Frog Ltd., distributed by North Atlantic Books: $25, 600 pp.)

August 04, 1996|Michael Harris | Michael Harris regularly reviews for Book Review

One can't read Richard Grossinger's 600-page memoir of growing up Jewish and absurd without being of two minds about it. The two minds argue:

Grossinger? Wait a minute. Wasn't there a big resort, back in New York somewhere? Yes, indeed. Grossinger's, a Borscht Belt landmark for decades. Richard's father ran it. But there's another side to the story: Richard's father and his mother were no longer married when their son was growing up. The man Richard assumed to be his dad was a New York City ad executive named Bob Towers. "Uncle Paul" was just this rich guy who stopped by and took him to Yankees games; who, in other words, showed him a good time, which he rarely had at home. He was 8 before his psychiatrist, Dr. Fabian, clued him in.

A shrink? At 8?

Richard knew something was wrong. His neurotic mother, "a one-woman totalitarian regime" and future suicide, ignored Richard in favor of his younger brother. Towers was distant. Richard suffered from anxiety attacks, bed-wetting and chronic fears. Dr. Fabian became the first in a long line of father substitutes.

Wow! Sounds like a fairy tale. The prince exiled from the castle and unable to claim his kingdom, though he can visit it on holidays now and then. It struck Richard that way, too. Inspired by psychoanalysis and convinced that the purpose of life was self-discovery, he devoted most of his considerable energies from then on to "interpreting events with symbols as my clues."

But 600 pages of it? Not to worry. Grossinger, the author of such experimental and nonfiction works as "Book of the Cranberry Islands," "Planet Medicine," "The Night Sky" and "Embryogenesis," is a fine writer. The first 300 pages, in particular, are fascinating. Grossinger has near-total recall of what it was like to be a kid, plus a mature understanding of what it all meant; he has the honesty not to pretend that adult ironic hindsight is somehow truer than a kid's quivering experience of pain. And that's a rare combination.

As a student in a New York prep school, he began the autobiographical writing that, after a 20-year hiatus, became this book. Of the kid who wrote those early stories, he says: "I realize I was his only hope. . . . He was writing to me as much as to anyone. I alone could rescue him from his empty world, and for that reason I re-invoke him and bring my imagination and healing back to him."

Some readers will place this memoir of baseball, summer camp, Latin classes, domestic terrors and enchanted moments at Grossinger's as a spiritual quest in the tradition of Blake and Emerson. Others will call it self-indulgent new age rhetoric and, in truth, there's a lot of material about Tarot cards in here. Grossinger has a mind like a vacuum cleaner; it sucks up not just a staggering amount of learning but dust and stray paper clips as well. His search for a father put him under the influence of several self-appointed gurus from the '60s, though he seems to have taken what he needed from them and shrugged off the rest.

Sex? He kept it in the context of his search for love and family. Grossinger's courtship of poet Lindy Hough--still his wife--forms the heart of the second half of the book. The story is moving because it has nothing to do with romantic formula. It's a collision between two young people who were only beginning to know their own minds, much less each other's. In the best '60s tradition, they try like hell to do it right.

In college at Amherst, where Grossinger was radicalized when jocks set his dorm room afire, he embraced the counterculture. He helped found a noted literary magazine, Io; he made the scene in Aspen; he studied cultural anthropology (Hopi ceremonies and Maine fishermen); and he hobnobbed with underground filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger as well as poets Charles Olson, Diane Wakoski, Gary Snyder and Robert Kelly. To name a few.

*

Maybe that's why the last 300 pages fall off a bit. The kid isn't a victim anymore--he's taking charge. We notice that, like a lot of folks who find every moment in life intensely meaningful, he lacks humor. He's slow to forgive people who were unkind to him or simply uncool. His once-magical father turns out to be just another hard-nosed, womanizing businessman; his once-glowing image of Grossinger's fades into a picture of a hangout for "lobotomized crowds" of "Jewish peasants" who have made money.

Still, this is a success story. Grossinger starts out as a scared, confused child and grows into a knowledgeable and courageous man. He never loses his sense of how much he doesn't know . . . nor his sense of princely entitlement. And that raises a question:

Doesn't Grossinger realize that the '60s are over? The American body politic is trying its best to slam shut all those perceptual doors that he and others pried open back then. Today, innovation is for corporations only; individuals are supposed to rally around "traditional values," and thank God they have jobs. Where has Grossinger been?

Answer: In Berkeley, where he publishes his own works and others, where he has two grown children and learned "the rudiments of shamanic practice."

Can you expect a man who has undergone such a journey--a journey as deep, complex and painful as "New Moon"--to simply turn his back on his life and follow the election returns? No way.

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