Before reading Ben Miller’s River Bend Chronicle, I never thought a memoir about growing up in Iowa (I confess: I am a snob when it comes to geography!) would hold my attention for more than a few pages, never mind keep me spellbound for 457 pages. But great works of art have the magical power of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.
This is not to say that the Millers are an “ordinary” family; in fact, they are as eccentric as it gets. While presenting an American family that epitomizes, through its rituals and habits, the American experience of the ’70s, the author infuses the narrative fabric with a potion that elevates the ordinariness to the level of Myth—the Myth of a family that rises and falls (well, mostly falls and falls) like characters in a Greek tragedy, but without their nobility. The Millers make me think of the characters in Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930), whose excessive Americanness takes the type out of the archetype, making them veer into the grotesque. For the Millers, and in particular the Mother, who is one of the strongest literary characters I’ve come across in contemporary American literature, are grotesque. The Mother is described with a cruelty that reminds me of Céline (though the narrator’s pain and vulnerability, hidden behind his cruelty, are absent in Céline). What a woman: a feminist, a law school graduate who quotes great poets as she goes through her daily routine, who watches the most “capitalist” shows on TV (The Price is Right), dresses like a homeless person, treats her children to the greasiest fast-food diners in town, and shops at Target and K-mart, all the while ranting against American materialism. The Mother’s pilgrimages to various chain stores where she drinks several cups of free coffee and buys whatever is on sale make her into one of the saddest paradoxes of rebellion against what she, or any of us, could call American consumerism. What is the point of rebelling against consumerism if it turns you into the most abject beggar for its leftovers? And if it means taking your favorite offspring, Ben, to ritualistic trips to “Big Boy” for the most disgusting, high-calorie meals imaginable? The description of these trips is memorable in its morbidity:
The waist-high catacomb of the large orange booth culminating in the Plexiglas casket of the salad bar, lemon JELL-O halo and charnel bacon bits and aluminum soup kettle coated with black plastic. Husbands and wives stared at uneaten fries, unable to think of a civil word to say, or any word…. Couples of all types, but mired in a similar swamp of surreal ordinariness.
A “surreal ordinariness”—this is the element that infuses much of the Millers’ world, and which makes it somewhat akin (in its ethos, rather than its details) to the world represented in the writings of another Midwesterner, Sherwood Anderson.
The Father, on the other hand, is closer to the image of the father many of us share: a man in a chair reading a newspaper. But he too has a darker, Millerian, side: a failed writer, author of several unpublished novels. Not only that, he is a practicing attorney, albeit an attorney with no clients and whose legal files are rotting in boxes kept outside. And this is where the narrative is hard to comprehend: both parents have law degrees and literary aspirations, but they live, and force their six children to live, like white trash in a trailer.
Of the six children, Ben is the oldest, followed by Elizabeth, Howard, Marianna, Nathan, and Nanette. Elizabeth is the most ambitious, and up to a certain age the closest to her brother, with whom she makes an oath to become a writer. While Elizabeth’s ticket out of the Miller circle is her studies, Marianna uses her looks for the same purpose. She insinuates herself into the households...