In fiction we say that stories are always about trouble. And usually, the more trouble the better. But is there any such dictum for nonfiction? As I read John Price's second book, Man Killed by Pheasant, a memoir told through loosely linked essays, I began to consider what the purpose of a memoir is and what it should reveal to us about its author. If a writer doesn't have a harrowing story to tell or isn't famous, then what are our expectations as readers? What is it that we're looking to glean from reading the story of ordinary, well-adjusted citizens with no great pain or loss in their lives?
Price's essays, arranged in a chronological order, detail a childhood and adolescence filled with an affinity for nature and comic-book heroes, and an adulthood in which he fell into the study of literature. There are not great moments of misery or catastrophe in his book, and for the most part, this is a welcome change of pace from the tell-every-dirty-secret craze that has infected the memoir industry over the last 20 years or so. But, on the other hand, the book lacks a singular narrative drive, and the fact that it consists of essays published at different times over a number of years sometimes makes it feel that much more discontinuous.
The book's primary source of tension is Price's resistant and slow-won love for his Iowa homeland-a place he longs to leave as a child, but never does. At times, in his struggle to come to grips with the ambivalence he feels toward his homeland, Price seems to reach for memories that don't serve as aptly as they might his purpose, which is to show how hard it was to accept his place, metaphorically and literally, in the world. In the essay "Nymph," for instance, Price recounts his days as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa when he finds himself falling in love with literature and drifting away from his plan to study medicine. Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Illych" is what is pulling at him, and as he lies on his back in the park while reading it, his mind wanders and he discovers the discarded husks of cicada nymphs, which become emblematic of a life left behind. Of having begun to see the genius in Tolstoy's story, he writes, "Later, I would look back on this moment as perhaps the beginning of my journey as a writer. At the time, though, I had no idea what shape my life would assume or how far that life would carry me or what difference I could possibly make." Fair enough, but do any of us, at 20, know where a life will lead or how it will be measured?
He is often more successful. In the opening essay, "On Haskell Street," Price introduces us to his family history, telling the story of his great-grandparents who left Sweden to settle in the west-central Iowa town of Fort Dodge. He writes movingly and lovingly about his ancestors. At times he almost elevates them to mythical heroes before his own realities bring him back to earth: "I was in the middle of my own immigrant journey, it seemed. One morning I woke up in a foreign place: short, pimply, less than miraculous." He is lost in his own adolescence, but he is also losing the world he grew up in as the farm crisis of the early 1980s uproots his classmates and their families. In time, his own maternal grandparents will retire to Arizona. "The immigrant story continues," he writes. "I'm next to try to leave, applying to universities on the coasts, but ending up at the University of Iowa by default, on the other side of the state. I will fly farther someday, I swear."
But he doesn't. Events continue to keep him in-state. By his own admission, he stays on at the University of Iowa for graduate school because he has few other options. Then, he meets a girl who moves to Iowa during their courtship because he is...