Review of Nobody’s Son by Mark Slouka
In his 2010 essay collection, Essays from the Nick of Time, Mark Slouka begins with an epigraph from Henry David Thoreau: “I have been anxious to improve the nick of time…to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.” It’s a line Slouka continues to toe in his latest nonfiction effort, Nobody’s Son, a sweeping family memoir that spans a century, revealing the many heavy branches of his family tree. At its center is Slouka, trapped between his mother and father who themselves are trapped in a mostly loveless marriage. Upon fleeing occupied Czechoslovakia in 1948, Zdenek and Olinka Slouka eventually wound their way to America, though their ghosts accompanied them, most notably, Olinka’s love affair with a man identified as “F.”, whose presence transcends an ocean and permeates every page. But there are other ghosts, too: a runaway aunt, a newly discovered half-uncle, a Nazi-sympathizing grandfather, a weak-willed father, and a pill-addicted mother, just to name a few. Taken together, Nobody’s Son has all the makings of a modern day soap opera, but thanks to Slouka’s clear-eyed depictions, it’s anything but.
Beyond the drama, the metanarrative keeps the story grounded; Slouka’s continual grappling with the burdens of memory, history, love and hate, as well as his place within all of it. “The act of writing will reveal you, word by word, line by line,” Slouka writes, and indeed it does. Yet despite the messiness of his family history—a moving target if there ever was one—Slouka’s words always feel immutable, chiseled rather than typed. Perhaps their lasting power is a credit to his willingness to confront his own ghosts, a confrontation he alludes to in the book’s opening pages. “There can come a time in your life when the past decides to run you down,” he writes. “You’re not going to get away.” Slouka doesn’t even try. Instead, he embraces a cat’s cradle’s worth of stories in need of untangling. Thankfully, he enjoys the untangling, a process he’s practiced since he was a child, working through “the hopeless snarl” of his fishing reel rather than “cut it loose…”
By book’s end, one gets the sense that Slouka has a hard time cutting anything loose—including his parents, whose harm and love toward their son vacillates regularly. Yet it’s the uncertainty of what comes next, and what is revealed next, that contributes to the book’s inner tension. Slouka himself concedes that this “isn’t a straight story” but a “nest of memories…” He adds, too, that it’s “a bit of a mess,” and “A lot like life, if I get it right.” Unquestionably, he does. In sloughing off the artifice, Slouka brings the reader closer to something resembling truth. But it is not truth, not quite. Instead, it is a tangled version of it, and one susceptible to all the usual trappings of memoir: bias, memory, vantage point and frame.
Believe me when I tell you it’s worth it. Because in the end, Slouka’s closure-less story reminds us of a universal truth: how we mere mortals can’t help but study our past in search of our futures. Even if it in the end we’re left settling for the present; still, it’s worth the effort.
B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. In February, Flock Together: A Love Affair With Extinct Birds will be published by the University of Nebraska Press.