March 20, 2008


My Father’s Heart: A Son’s Journey. By Steve McKee. Da Capo. $25.

A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants: A Memoir. By Jaed Coffin. Da Capo. $16.

      These highly personal, sensitively told memoirs offer, on the one hand, a cautionary tale for the Western world and, on the other, a glimpse inside the Far East. Steve’s McKee’s My Father’s Heart is the story of his father’s death from a heart attack at age 50, and the inward and external journeys on which McKee went as a result. Part of what McKee does is ask doctors exactly what killed his father – and he gets, not surprisingly, a variety of analyses from people who, after all, never met the man and have no patient-pertinent information on which to base a firm diagnosis. But really, there is no mystery in what happened, even if a precise diagnosis (right or left coronary artery?) is elusive. There is a genetic predisposition to heart attack, and McKee’s father’s father had himself died of one – at age 53. McKee’s father smoked, ate poorly and avoided exercise – and even when he had a first heart attack, six years before the fatal one, he did not change his habits. Medical precision aside, what happened it clear enough. So what carries My Father’s Heart is not a mystery at its, well, heart, but the oral histories of heart-attack survivors, the emotional and physical responses of McKee himself in the wake of his father’s death, and the coolly presented (if scarcely new) research on heart disease. Of special if limited interest is the portrait of a city through multiple generations – specifically Buffalo, New York, but it could be any old industrial city in the frigid Rust Belt. The book does drift, as is not surprising given the numerous approaches of McKee and the variety of angles he takes on heart disease and the people who died from (or survived) it. But the style carries the story, often in asides that neatly encapsulate one element of life or another: “High school musicals are a boiling cauldron of out-of-control teen angst, teen hormones, teen frenzy. …Marry this vulnerability to a burgeoning confidence, put this sudden sense of a vibrating self in a back-stage area that’s too dark and filled with too many hidden corners for the adults to keep track of, and you have, quite simply, entered make-out heaven.” My Father’s Heart is often touching and even more often meandering – it will most attract readers interested in a well-presented tale of everyday events and ordinary history.

      A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants promises something more exotic and more or less delivers it. It is about Jaed Muncharoen Coffin’s decision to be ordained as a Buddhist monk in his mother’s native village of Panomsarakram, Thailand. Coffin, at age 21, finds himself fulfilling a family obligation by making his first trip to Thailand since boyhood. And he does, in a sense, find himself, partly by noticing that he does not fit in – literally does not fit in. Being half-American, he is so tall that he cannot sit as Thais do or kneel properly to pray. He is given the outward appearance of a Buddhist monk – shaved head and saffron robe – but not the inner calling. This quickly becomes clear when this sworn-to-chastity monk falls in love with a smart and stubborn village girl named Lek – although the two never have what Americans would consider an affair. But Lek becomes for Coffin the embodiment of the sort of life he can have if he ceases to be a monk, and there is never really any doubt that this young man, a Middlebury College student until he made his journey to Thailand, will depart. The family obligation requires only that Coffin spend some unspecified amount of time in the temple; some people, he says, stay for merely one day. He remains longer than that, but there is no question about his eventual departure – only about when it will occur, and under what circumstances. A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants has some interesting passages describing Thai village life and the routines of the temple. And Coffin’s realization that he will always feel caught between two cultures is, if scarcely revelatory, a worthwhile coming of age for him. But readers may well find Lek a more interesting character than the author – who now lives in Brunswick, Maine.

No comments:

Post a Comment