Reviewed by Brooke Williams
The first thing I read on opening Scott Abbott’s Immortal for Quite Some Time was that “This is not a memoir.” I agree. This book is, in my opinion, the world’s most perfect obituary. I’ve been reading them in the newspaper since my mother’s death in 1994, when I realized that most of the people at her funeral had learned that she’d passed by reading her obituary.
Obituaries come in many forms. The long-winded list of an old person’s accomplishments along with his/her progeny; the death notice, spare and sparse with a funeral invitation; the personal note, written by the deceased prior to being deceased; and what I call “the treasure hunt,” a frustrating communique full of carefully crafted clues to a much larger story, intended to help those still living.
I say “treasure” because I believe that everyone has a unique story, which when told well becomes a universal story from which anyone can learn. I say “hunt” because to find the story the reader must fill in the vast and empty spaces between the clues.
And then, there are those obituaries suggesting that the deceased has unfinished business. These days the quantum physicists say that we don’t “end” when we die but go on to occupy another, possibly parallel universe. We can either believe that this is possible or not. I happen to believe it, based on personal experiences for which no other reasonable explanation exists.
Scott Abbott’s obituary for his brother John, who died of AIDS on July 21, 1991, may fall into the “treasure hunt” category except that the number of clues contained in its 256 pages leave, at least for this reader, little unfilled space. It is not frustrating. It is beautiful.
As with the best of this genre, Abbot’s is less about his dead brother than it is about himself. The clues, laid out in journal form spanning most of his life are to a story, a treasure that remains unfinished.
The clues come in many forms. Abbott has included poems, photographs, shopping lists, and menus. There are letters and song lyrics. John’s alarm clock ticks throughout, and dreams are recalled: (In 1989 in Germany, “…a naked man reads into an expanding condom until it bursts—freeing letters and word fragments to conceive monsters, impregnate the universe”.) Throughout the text, there are italicized questions. But from where? His inner critic? (The publisher’s material says they’re from a feminine source, but I’m not sure.)
Most of the clues are contained in Abbott’s concise, sometimes haunting, sometimes poetic journal entries. My sense from the varied content contained in them is that Abbott doesn’t wait for something notable to occur or for an important thought to form to pull out his journal. Rather, he seems to have made journal-keeping a regular practice. The simple act of sitting down with his journal and pen signals his inner world to reveal itself.
A professor of integrated studies at Utah Valley University, Abbott began his career at BYU until his writing and general loss of faith drove him away. The literary clues come from his extensive reading and dependence on books and articles that not only inspired him but added heft and thrust to the building explanation and promise to the questions he’s asking. The literary clues are, to me, most intriguing: St. Maybe by Anne Tyler; Howl and Other Poems, by Allen Ginsberg (“America, I’m putting my Queer shoulder to the wheel,” he writes after attending church during his earliest, questioning . . . and the singing of that song we all know and many of us still love, “Put your shoulder to the wheel, push along . . ..”).
During a regular nap in his office, Abbott lays on a pillow of books (the top one being John Ashbery’s Flow Chart) and wonders about “an effortless transfer between book and brain.” At one point, on an airplane, Abbott is reading The Songlines, perhaps as a kind of counterweight to the Mormon “sister” sitting next to him with whom he is avoiding conversation, and quotes the book’s unrepentant English author, Bruce Chatwin: “’I would ram my face against her sheeny pink vulva and listen to the sound of the surf.’”
Then there is his reference to Modern Nature, Derek Jarman’s journal written after the late film director and author discovered he was HIV positive. Abbott read this book only to better understand his brother’s homosexuality:
The passage in which Jarman describes boarding-school officials catching him in bed with a boy named Johnny echoes my anger during John’s funeral: “Christ! What are you doing? You’ll go blind!” Then the blows rained down, millennia of frustrated Christian hatred behind the cane . . . We were shoved into the wilderness they had created, and commanded to punish ourselves for all time. So that at last we would be able to enter their heaven truly dead in spirit.
Sometimes Abbott quotes from earlier works of his own, as with this passage presented in a paper read at a Sunstone Symposium: “The word, ‘Mormon’ can and does evoke thoughts of bigotry, exclusion, narrowness, and sectarianism. In John Gardner’s 1982 novel Mickelsson’s Ghosts, for example, Mormons are described as a ‘sea of drab faces’ dutiful, bent-backed, hurrying obediently, meekly across an endless murky plain.”
In a reference to A Chorus of Stones by Susan Griffin, he recalls one of his BYU students calling the book “pornographic,” and “pornography,” she explains,” leads to masturbation, which leads to homosexuality which leads to necrophilia.” The woman quit the class and filed a complaint with the administration, claiming that Abbott’s class is not ”God centered” as required by the university’s mission statement.
What is Scott Abbott trying to make sense of? Where do these clues lead? What questions is he trying to answer? There are many possibilities.
Does he feel guilty for his brother’s death (alone, sick, in a distant room)? Does Abbott question his own sexuality? Does he in some deep way, worry that the tenets of the Mormon Church are right and that he has created eternal problems for himself and his family? Or is he simply answering the call of his creative and possibly evolutionary imagination, which has not let his brother John die in the depths of the author’s unconscious.
Although Abbott had already begun to question his faith, after John’s death he can no longer rationalize the life their racist and homophobic culture had forced his brother to live. Believing in the Mormon Church becomes impossible.
I’m finishing this review of Immortal for Quite Some Time after Donald J. Trump’s first full week in office. Last week, millions of women marched in protest of the new president’s misogynistic, patriarchal ways. Yesterday, airports were jammed with people protesting his latest edict, this one to keep Muslims out of America. With the notoriously homophobic Michael Pence as his Vice President, LGBTQ people might be next. And after that, the intellectuals.
Today is also Edward Abbey’s birthday. He would have been 90.
While many Utah Mormons held fast to their beliefs and voted for a third- party candidate, Trump won this state. That, plus our own elected officials are all on record as supporting Trump and their Republican Party.
This book, this past week, and my dismay at the Mormon Church seeming to ignore the good and right and even what makes natural sense by not disavowing Trump has me wondering. What if Abbott’s obituary for his brother, John isn’t just a fascinating treasure hunt? What if the “clues” are actually the bread crumbs John drops from that parallel world of the dead for his very alive brother to follow?
Immortal for Quite Some Time might be Abbott documenting his work on John’s unfinished business. If so, this business can be none other than seeing that the author follows his own unfiltered inner voice on his own journey through the dogmatic maze in which both he and his brother were raised, and out into the real and free world. The real world of deep darkness and bright light, of personal, primary inspiration rather than secondary. The real world where evolution occurs.
The book’s moving epilogue, dated 6 December 2015, supports this conclusion. After finding a letter John had written to a “Friend” during his mission to Italy, Abbott answers it. Again there are clues:
. . . of all I have learned from you over the twenty-five years I have followed your faint traces, friendship may be the most important lesson . . ..Lover and friend share the same root, as does the phrase, “to set free.” You have set me free, John. How I wish my much belated thoughts could have done the same for you. . . . [Y]our phrase “come sono fatto” reflects your sense for the Italian idea of “how am I made, how am I in my essential nature?”
And readers? Either they will find Scott Abbott’s story familiar because they are on a similar path, and it will inspire them to tell their own, or they will be drawn in because in quiet moments they know they need to start their own journey. They will know that this beautifully brave book, this unique obituary, will give them courage.
Immortal for Quite Some Time
University of Utah Press