Novelist, memoirist, and editor Erica Heller (daughter of Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22) conjured up a staggering notion: Just what if, she wondered, it were possible to meet for one last lunch with someone who was of the utmost importance in our lives and who already died? What would be said? How might it play out? Imagination and memories and deep needs were all sure to be galvanized.
Forty-eight brief pieces by four dozen contributors were selected and then collated by Erica Heller, whose vision has yielded a unique and unusually powerful non-fiction collection titled One Last Lunch ~ A Final Meal with Those Who Meant So Much To Us.
Yearning and “Father Hunger” in One Last Lunch
In her introduction to this mesmerizing assemblage of mini-memoirs and mostly elegiac projections, here’s how Erica Heller sets the stage:
“We almost always feel that a loved one’s death has cheated us out of critical time together. Writers, actors, artists; everybody had somebody they missed terribly, whose absence was palpable, for what turned out to be a startling variety of reasons. What I learned from the lunches was that even the death of someone who means the world to us cannot rob us of two magical things: our memories and our imaginations. Our minds, unchained, are free to wander back anytime we like, as often as we long to, to feel comforted or amused or angry or even peevishly annoyed; to rewrite the ending to our own private scenario.”
There are, of course, several contributions highlighting cultural icons. For example, Clarence Major breaks bread during an imagined sit-down dialogue with legendary author James Baldwin. And Lee Clow envisions his last lunch with Steve Jobs, while Joe Lewis does the same with Jimi Hendrix.
To editor Erica Heller’s credit, however, the revelatory feature of this book is that many of the contributors took the opportunity to invoke the spirits and legacies of their own fathers.
To scan the Menu (as the Table of Contents is aptly dubbed), we see it time after time: Daniel Bellow writing about his father Saul. Kate O’Toole writing about her father Peter. And Anne Serling offering her visionary last lunch with father Rod, followed shortly by Rain Pryor recalling her father Richard, which later segues to Mark Vonnegut projecting his last lunch reunion with his father Kurt.
Plenty of other combinations are also in the mix: Malachy McCourt reunites with brother Frank. Actor Bob Balaban confers with Groucho Marx. In a particularly innovative contribution, novelist Hilma Wolitzer breaks with the prose-writing majority and offers instead a heartrending poem to honor and temporarily resuscitate poet Maxine Kumin.
And yet, if there is one all-consuming, recurring theme to this medley of richly imagined farewell encounters, what emerges most discernibly is what poet-mythologist Robert Bly has called “father hunger.” The visceral yearnings, the emotional hunger, the frozen needs, and most of all the loving sense of “father hunger” manifest repeatedly.
Three standout contributions: Elizabeth Mailer is eloquent yet tough-minded about her father Norman and his infamous 1960 stabbing of his second wife, Adele Morales (mother of Elizabeth). And then in a longer, richly imagined piece by author and educator Kaylie Jones, we witness her audacious visit to a WWII field hospital (food in hand) where her father is recovering from wartime wounds on an island in the Pacific, because he is, after all, James “From Here to Eternity” Jones. Finally, mention must be made of the ultra-brief but piercing contribution from Kirk Douglas, who was past his 100th birthday when contributing his essay. Nonetheless, he too wrote of yearning for more time with his father.
There are endless variations on themes of grief, love, regret and gratitude in this collection. And the pulverizing essays by Erica Heller that begin and end this book of lamentations are superb.
The Soul’s Agony: Joanna Acevedo’s Unsaid Things
Equally superb are the thirteen carefully crafted tales presented in Unsaid Things ~ Short Stories, a debut fiction collection by Joanna Acevedo. It is nothing short of astonishing that in this distracted, scatterbrained, haywire era of Twitter fragments and other media idiocies, serious writers still manage to find a home for one of America’s venerable entities: the short-story collection.
From Langston Hughes and Ernest Hemingway to Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ann Beattie, the American literary canon has been enhanced by serious short-story artists. Joanna Acevedo joins that tradition with Unsaid Things, which lives up to its title by presenting characters in conflict, struggling to grow, who by and large also struggle to articulate what is often suppressed or repressed in life.
Every bit as contemporary now as Hemingway’s In Our Time was in the mid-1920s, the tales told by Joanna Acevedo reveal human beings and their mysterious private agonies. To cope with her life, one protagonist whose “ex” is very much alive never stops telling those who will listen that he is dead. In another story, a working model who cannot erase her memories of childhood abuse increasingly defines her life (professionally and personally) by the very abuse that torments her psyche and soul.
In short-story collections, the titles almost always indicate a thematic arc. In Unsaid Things, the author’s selected titles speak volumes: “Loss Can Be Gradual or All at Once” is soon followed by “Wish You Were Here.” And then “Inertia” is eventually superseded by “Pursuit.” Tellingly, the archetypal patterns of many relationships are summed up in the titles of two stories that follow each other in sequence: “Where You End and I Begin” segues directly to “Trying to Escape the Inevitable.”
Just as tellingly, out of the thirteen narratives presented in Unsaid Things, two stories revolve around characters who are hamstrung by the questions asked by these titles: “Why Does There Have to Be a Why?” and “How Does One Feel Close to Another Person?” Those questions from time immemorial illustrate why Joyce Carol Oates endorsed these “blunt, spare, tautly-honed stories.”
Cinematic “flashes” and episodes of time are deftly conveyed in passages like this: “Now he’s leaving again. This time we lasted two months. Before that, six months. Before that, three months. After a certain point, Alex decides he can’t take it anymore, and he leaves. But he always comes back.”
And we, as human beings forever in search of order amid chaos, often come back to the power of words as we lurch forward and ponder over time how we and those in our lives ever got from there to here. Is there a unifying factor causing these two different books to complement each other?
Yes, there is. Whether it’s one of the dozens of idiosyncratic offerings in One Last Lunch or one of the baker’s dozen stories presented in Unsaid Things, we see again and learn anew the fundamental truth summed up by Joan Didion’s oft-quoted remark: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Photo: Erica Heller (C) Daniel Melamud