100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared by Kim Stafford
The title 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do brings to mind a Boy Scout manual, with its tricks for tying knots and starting fires, and Kim Stafford’s book, indeed, includes some scouting adventures and wilderness skills. This memoir, however, is an instruction manual on the most primitive arts of all: loving and losing.
The subtitle of Stafford’s poignant memoir is How My Brother Disappeared, evoking his relationship with his older brother, Bret, and Bret’s suicide at the age of forty. The narrative is a collection of vivid childhood memories that conjure a powerful brotherly bond. Stafford recalls the “bridge game” he and his brother enacted before sleep as little boys, stretching their bodies across the space between their two beds and crawling across each other’s backs before reciting a good night blessing. Together they seemed to exist at a precious angle of repose. “When it was just my brother and me,” Stafford writes, “we were like two pillars forming a tent of knowing, and we relied on each other” (44).
What happens, then, when one pillar disappears, and the “tent of knowing” collapses? Bret’s suicide calls into question the future, [End Page 234] as Kim Stafford struggles to go forward in his own story without his brother; and it casts doubt on the past, as the author struggles to interpret his brother’s life and the family mythology, searching for clues that could help make sense of Bret’s spiraling depression and death. He reconsiders his relationship with his father, the poet William Stafford, and his own role as the wandering son. At the beginning of the memoir Stafford recalls his brother getting the pamphlet 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do from the back of a comic book. Bret quickly attempted the ultimate trick of pulling a tablecloth out from under a crystal glass. The result, of course, was millions of shards of glass. Stafford’s trick is to undo, to restore the million fragments that exploded with Bret’s suicide into some kind of coherent narrative. In eighty-nine vignettes that shine like polished stones below a rippling river, Stafford attempts to decipher the “tricks required to become a human being” (176) when life seems to have fractured beyond recognition. Like that other great western story of brotherhood and loss, Norman Maclean’s A River Runs through It, Stafford’s memoir wrestles with how we “can love completely without complete understanding.”
Stafford’s story cannot conjure up his brother’s return to life, but it does perform the magic of memoir. Even when there are gaps that cannot be filled, voids that cannot be crossed, the act of telling the story can provide the “episodic evidence” that leans “toward understanding” (197) and holds the broken self together. [End Page 235]