Bookmonger: Memoir opens door to healing

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJanuary 6, 2014 

Memoirs: Man, a couple of years ago it seemed like I needed to pull on the hip waders to slosh through all the dysfunction and despair that writers were churning out. I gave myself a break from the genre - instead, I got my grim kicks by reading nonfiction about global climate change or human trafficking.

That's toughened me up considerably, so to launch 2014, I've jumped back into the memoir trenches, and this week I'm reporting on a doozy of a new work from Seattle writer Eli Hastings.

In his previous book, a promising essay collection called "Falling Room," Hastings chronicled his youthful disenchantment and rebellion in Seattle.

His new book, "Clearly Now, the Rain" is rue and rumination surrounding a decade-long relationship Hastings began with a woman he met when he attended a liberal arts college in Southern California in the 1990s.

Serala was from a traditional Indian family back East. She was exotic and renegade - an artist, an addict and an insomniac.

Hastings was captivated.

They cultivated their friendship over long road trips together and via long letters when apart. Hastings culls bits from their correspondence for this book. (This seems so last-century, doesn't it? Perhaps this will be one of the last memoirs to rely on epistolary content.)

Sometimes Hastings and Serala were lovers; always they remained friends.

After college, she became a corporate vice president in the Northeast, while he plugged through an MFA writing program in North Carolina. With other friends from college, they ping-ponged back and forth across the continent - Seattle, Wilmington, New York, Montana, L.A - trying out graduate programs, living arrangements, relationships, geography and drugs. Especially in Serala's case.

"Clearly Now, the Rain" considers those hard years of the twenties - when one is no longer a youth, but not yet convincing as an adult.

But this memoir's primary focus is on the haunting complexities of Serala.

Along the way, Hastings tackles these questions: What is choice and what is compulsion? What is the difference between empathy and codependency? How do risk-taking and art feed on one another? How can one manage pain? What happens when love or beauty or work become insufficient tethers to life?

Serala was a sage, Serala was a wreck.

Hastings works through his best friend's ups and downs with unvarnished observations, from the first time he saw her - "She smokes furiously - not fast, but with drags that seem lethal. She is silent and her eyes are purple, bagged, like they've weathered a storm" - to a final, shared Christmas where she is "drunk and smiling, tottering on high heels with raspberry truffles on a cookie tray, pleased with herself."

In between, there are times of caustic humor, beauty, desperation, tough talk and forgiveness.

The book's concluding pages juxtapose purposeful action with futility in some of the most powerful, punch-to-the-gut writing I've read in a long time.

"Clearly Now, the Rain" wrestles lamentation, celebration and healing into one totally breath-taking read. And with that, happy new year!

MEET THE AUTHOR

Eli Hastings will speak about his book "Clearly Now, the Rain" at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 10, at Village Books, 1200 11th St. in Bellingham.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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