All the Markings of a Tiny Phenomenon
When I read a book, I usually do so with an unapologetic pen in hand: starring, underlining, bracketing, and scribbling notes in the margins. And when I’m done, it’s still the book it was when I began, but something has happened to distinguish it as my own. It’s akin to the maps we used to use for long trips in those pre-GPS days, how we’d cover them in the marks of our own journeys.
I had to temporarily kick this habit when I set out to re-read Grab Onto Me Tightly As If I Knew The Way. I never outright owned a copy of the book. One of my best friends in high school lent me his dog-eared copy during lunch period in my sophomore or junior year, after having devoured it the night before. After I did the same, I showed it to another friend, who bought her own copy. Things continued on this way briefly between my friends and their friends, and sometimes even their friends.
Inside this copy are all the markings of a tiny phenomenon amongst my group of teenage friends in 2006—several handwritings made by a selection of pens and brightly colored highlighters. I couldn’t recognize any of the writing but my own (a neater and more deliberate version of my current handwriting), but I made some guesses during my re-read. And that’s why I had to put my pen down this time around: it felt wrong to tinge my 15- or 16-year-old self’s communal book with her 23-year-old observations, at least in a way so deliberate.
When I read this book as a teenager, protagonist and narrator Vim Sweeney and I had a lot in common. We were both somewhat rebellious children of divorced parents, living in the suburbs, working menial jobs and following a passion for all things creative. Though my musical taste differed from Vim’s, we shared a love for some of the great rock classics like the Beatles and Bob Dylan. On a smaller scale, however, we varied greatly. He had an eschewed father, he lived in Michigan, he was a boy, and he was also just barely older than me—a few years that make a big difference.
During the course of the book, Vim Sweeney falls obsessively in love with Helene, the girlfriend of his benevolent, if not a little naïve friend/band mate, Wheeler. Helene carries around a copy of Naked Lunch and calls it her Bible, leaves her self-inflicted scars out on her arms for the world to see, and spends a night wearing a pink feather boa, wondering aloud how she could have lived without one (to which Vim responds “Life without a feather boa doesn’t sound like life to me. In other news, half the world is starving”). Combine this unrequited love with Vim’s anger towards his distant father, the uncomfortable and agonizing experience of being in your late teens, and his constant search to derive some kind of meaning from his life, and you have the perfect storm to propel this gem of a coming-of-age novel.
When I began my re-read, I called to mind my old feelings about Vim: wiser than me, totally in touch with suffering in a way that I wasn’t, and certain, if not of the world around him, at least of his own approach to it. Had Vim been a real person, and had we been friends then, I would have tried to pick his brain, to use his guidance to concoct my own opinion on what life meant to people like us. But upon my re-read, now that I am five to six years Vim’s senior, I want to invite him over for dinner and try to talk some sense into him.
Because what I didn’t realize then is that Vim is, above all, confused. He vacillates back and forth between self-destructive nihilism (he prefaces his band’s set during a show with the wisdom that “we’re all fucking products…get used to it”) and the victim of far too much misplaced hope. In one moment of desperation, he makes a halfhearted promise to himself that he will smash his car into a tree if a particular drop of sweat does not drop between Helene’s cleavage. It drops.
Teenage me identified with this confusion and shared the same habits. Somewhat adult me wants to grab Vim Sweeney by the shoulders and shake him until he realizes that he has to take his life into his own hands, not let his happiness hinge on something as meaningless as a bead of sweat. Eight years of growing up has allowed me to realize that Vim’s sorrows are no longer soul-crushing misfortunes, but rather the byproducts of his approach to life, his unwillingness or inability to transform them into something better.
And that’s not a flaw of the book that I was missing: if anything, that makes it a far more complex narrative. Vim no longer feels like some messiah to me, like a bearer of ultimate truth. He’s much more complicated and flawed than that. I feel as if those years between my reading have built a glass wall between us: I can still see him very clearly, but I no longer relate to his state of mind, so I can’t feel touched by him in the same way I used to.
In one of my favorite moments of the book, Vim comes home from his dishwashing shift and asks his stepfather, Ed, (who he thinks of as his real father) for a beer to ease his pain, to which his stepfather responds, “Pain of what? Dishpan hands?” I can remember how angry that remark made me as a teenager. Re-reading it I tried to hold onto that anger, to let it resurface. I wanted to get Vim’s struggle. But it was hard. I found myself on Ed’s side even though I tried to drum up sympathy for Vim. I understood Ed’s urge to essentially tell Vim to get over himself in a way that I couldn’t when I was Vim’s age or younger.
And if my feelings for Grab Onto Me Tightly’s characters hadn’t taught me anything about how I’ve changed, its form would have. My first read of the book was during a time when I hadn’t read any poetry beyond the major players like Dickinson, Frost or Whitman. But Grab Onto Me Tightly pushes the boundaries between fiction and poetry. The book is divided into over a hundred sections, some several pages long, some one sentence long (the entirety of section 104 reads “Dear god please fill me with the light of something larger than myself amen”). My love for this book as a teen was an indicator of the love I would develop for poetry in my 20s, and might have even been partly responsible for it.
In one of the final scenes of the book, Vim asks Helene if she received the rocks he mailed to her from his uncle’s house, rocks that he took from Pictured Rocks National Landshore, the stealing of which is punishable by law. When she says she didn’t, Vim concludes someone must have taken them out of the envelope before sending them. This scene is strikingly similar to the experience of re-reading this book for me. I feel as though while re-reading it, I tried hard to call up feelings of my youth. But I learned those feelings only belong there, and something has forced me to leave them.
Amanda McConnon is an intern for Late Night Library. She lives in New Jersey, right between the woods and the ocean, and is pursuing her MFA in poetry at New York University. Her poetry has appeared in decomP magazinE, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, and others.