Family stories easily become fools’ tales, full of lies, contradictory reporting, individual fictions, false memory. Everyone’s got their own version of “the story,” the more the merrier depending on the sibling count; and the historical chatter lasts a lifetime. Or it turns into dumb silence. Andre Gide warned writers (I assume for the above reasons) that “there is nothing more dangerous than your own family, your own room, your own past….You must leave them.” Good advice?
In his memoir, Human Happiness (Thomas Allen, 2011) Brian Fawcett ignores Gide’s advice and gives us a story of family life, love, strife, debacle, multiple dysfunction, and, yes, happiness. The result is damn near heroic. We come to know Hartley Fawcett and Rita Surry, our writer’s parents and the story’s protagonists, as if they were our own parents—or to know them better than we might ever have taken the trouble to know our own parents. The two, here, are persons of reality, not fiction, and their chronicle, delivered by their youngest son, reaches deep into the day-to-day history of an average family whose parents led “small decent lives….grounded in common sense…without any epic proportions.”
They achieved this in an era, the post-WW II “Golden Age” of North American prosperity and hope for the future, and in a place, the Interior of British Columbia, where regional lives and local economies had not quite yet been bulldozed into the marketized present by transnational corporate predators. Hartley and Rita dared, in this ambience, to plan and lead “The Good Life”—one that is no longer available to us, the post-war boomers and their offspring, who might lead “a, but never the Good Life”. They raise a family, “Build a Business Empire” (as Hartley, who favoured speaking in capital letters, put it) and carve an historical and domestic marker into the backcountry of a booming, then busting, then booming again, cyclically forgetful Canadian province. Prince George, in the smack centre of the place, is the main scene of the daily, “in no way special” action, and as offspring and business acumen spread out into the surrounding forests and small towns, and run, then, up against corporate logging and consumer operations, the family grip on the Good Life doesn’t waver, and the pressures it exerts on the marital and home front takes its toll.
We are privy here to a “true tale” of survival and accomplishment, individual courage and flawed perfection written by a chronicler whose accuracy and empathy for the story and its occupants are compromised neither by sentimental “personal memory” foolishnesses nor Gidean terror. Son Brian’s recounting is honest and intelligent, respectful and critical in the face of often painfully tempestuous reality spiked with sparkling beauty, and the truth and grace of the writing wings over the plot and its characters like a latter day guardian angel.
What’s important here, in view of Andre Gide’s admonition, is that both Fawcett parents indeed left their strife-ridden families behind to carve out a new independent life for themselves and “build an entirely new world”. Hartley, we learn, is a self-made-man. He’s a true life male of his time, architect of a local business empire, driver of Cadillac autos. Men, he claims, are “naturally superior to women…and must always lead in a marriage.” Rita, meanwhile, commits with full heart and sharp mind to bringing up her four children in a quasi-frontier testosterone-saturated town, and asserts from early in the marriage a compelling identity that emerges, in her forties, as that of woman in full charge of her powers, and in no way subservient to her often out-of-the-real-domestic-picture and remarkably neglectful husband. The battles between what Fawcett calls alpha male and female give strong colour to the story as it tracks the peaks and abysses through a sixty-four-year marriage (Rita dies in 2000 at 90; Hartley dies in 2008 at almost 101.) in which the two combatants, despite all of this, experience “real world happiness as a common sense accomplishment.”
One is grateful while reading that Fawcett is, throughout the book, clear about what he means by happiness: “My findings are that life is morally and physically a mess and that the future is utterly incomprehensible. Thus, true happiness lies in the ability to live with ambiguity, and the road to happiness runs along those paths through the dark woods that aren’t blocked by the paralyzing blindness of ambivalence, or slicked to individual and collective idiocy by simplifications that can’t bear the sunlight.” The conception of permanent compulsory happiness proffered by consumer market culture, he adds, “is subject to the same logic as a still-life [painting]: in the real world, if happiness and/or still-life, or even The Good Life exists, it is only for a moment, and glimpsed in flight.” This down-to-earth pragmatic hubris-and-greed-free notion of happiness is what he credits his parents, amidst all of their shortcomings, for having, sometimes in spite of themselves, for better or worse, achieved. And such happiness, in order to exist, he insists, accepts ironic humour and physical comedy as “the unacknowledged third element [after love and conflict] that human life is constructed from.” Relaying comedic, even slapstick reality, he stresses, is the interest that guides his writing project.
Fawcett, the son, who spent most of his life fighting with his businessman alpha male father, “bred true” and is an unapologetic alpha male, albeit one with a different skill set. The two never reconciled, but near the end of Hartley’s life, Fawcett junior applies alert, touching prose to the job of rendering his father not only understandable but loveable. At Rita’s funeral celebration Hartley lines up potential “girlfriends”; in 2003 he remarries and transduces into “the most affectionate loving attentive husband”—of his seventy-something new wife—that the family has ever encountered. And in matching tender prose the son then records his sadness at having not made greater earlier efforts to reach accord with and know rather than fight with his father.
Rita, throughout, extends great affection and love to her youngest child, shields him from Hartley’s aggressions. The mother-and-son engagement and closeness shines through the entire memoir. It’s zenith, which for me is the book’s core, is an interview based on 40 questions that Fawcett puts to his mother in the late 1990s, and in which Rita, in her own voice, reveals a life of feeling and thought and attention—to family, love, marriage, sex, values, desires, disappointments, beliefs, and, yes, happiness and the good life—that produce a testament any son, not to mention his children and grandchildren, would want to have in the world when its author is gone. Fawcett’s similarly structured interview with his father, conducted just before his mother died, becomes, by contrast, a mental chess game in which the father still jousts for alpha points via verbal certainties and man-of-the-hour, “capital lettered platitudes,” and the son, via accurate, sensitively interspersed reflections and narrative cues, refuses to give in to cynicism, aggression or despair and reveals a sympathetic heart thus far not as evident in the father-son accountings.
A chapter composed of photos of Rita and Hartley in various life-and-marriage stages balances the centerpiece interview chapters of Human Happiness, and the narrative device here consists of commentary and reflections that Fawcett supplies by way of providing the (at least) 75 words required to understand the worth of a photo. Here, again, the writing shines: these mini essays radiate desire, curiosity, a great deal of sharp-edged tenderness, and are offered without sentimentality or judgment. Fawcett’s observations of this mediated version of his parents’ lives are astute, critical, warm hearted: they provide a dimension far enough distanced from the photo album captions one encounters in standard memoirs to become, here, a micro genre all its own. The photos move, don’t stop the story, even as, of course, being photos, they are (like false consumer happiness) still-life portraits. The essaylets take care of the problem: I found myself looking at the photos over and over again, as if trying to solve a mystery—aligned, I’m thinking, to the one Fawcett is trying to solve with this book, and the one that children, with their internal monologues and psychic explorations, can be caught (and later perhaps remember) reciting when they decipher family albums. Photos, Fawcett reminds us, are essential indicators of family truth and historical presence, especially in mid-20th century backcountry B.C. where “scenery” vies with humanity for attention, reverential memory creation, and entry into the visual record while the new Socred government highway systems sped one to the desired locations. Our author sticks here to the human part of the Kodachrome viewpoint happiness business.
Fawcett attributes his parents’ unassuming, casual human happiness, to good looks, good luck, good health, realistic decisions and plans that one stuck to and didn’t stress too much and lose sleep over. One “Rolls With the Punches,” as his capital-letter father puts it in his chess game interview. Parts of the luck and health grow from the fact “ they lived in Western Canada, the most stable part of the world during the last century.” Fawcett’s additional contention that the out-of-the-ballpark consumer desires media today glazes our eyes over into imagining we have is also a factor: modest desires and less frenetic electronic advertising-driven daily life made doing and desiring easier on the nerves in those days, and the give and take between happy and unhappy was accepted rhythmical experience. I agree with this claim. The fact that my children and grandchildren live in a reality altered on fundamental levels from those of their ancestors can unnerve me, especially when I think that the new media-generated values and accompanying consciousness may well delete from consciousness the very concept of history, memory, or the idea that one has—and needs—a past.
I’m also impressed by the conciliatory detail and fine writing with which Fawcett leads us through this job of reimagining, remembering, calling to mind a personal and socio-economic past. A text and a context. Scholar and intellectual Tony Judt has pointed out that the study of history tends towards facts, and is constantly, given the uncertainty of factual reality, in need of scholarly revision. Memory, on the other hand, is personal, even tribal, clan or family myth, and in this valence can easily veer toward legend and congeal into a sentimental, ruthless, uncritical or unthought-through certainty that generates nothing but violence and in-group self righteousness. Brian Fawcett is to be lauded here for balancing the two vectors: one understands the social and political world one is in when one reads Human Happiness, and one understands also that the dreaded, deep, personally-privately-lived, sometimes cut-throat domestic back stories Andre Gide wished to escape from or repress can’t be avoided.
What if, Fawcett seems to ask, the front and back story are arranged the other way around? First the home, then the world? Or: You can’t have one without the other, as a Campbell Soup ad from those Golden B.C. years had it? Courage, I think, is the operative value applied here, one by which a story teller can, without turning into a total fool, maintain a level of humourous even slapstick-enriched accounting that does not hide the serious facts; it makes the leap from the personal to the political and the leap back again, a trip the Sixties boomer generation recommended and rarely succeeded at taking without a fall, look real and doable.
In Human Happiness Fawcett inspects, honours, dissects, comes to terms with, praises and does not over-valourize his parents’ hopes and achievements, their synced-in-with-their-era checkered and nevertheless relatively stable lives: “The world they built, whether in the physical landscapes around me or inside my head—was stable and utterly safe. There were just the six of us, my parents, brother, my sisters and me….There was a remarkable elasticity to this family, that enabled it to weather the assaults of time and contingency. It could expand and contract without anxiety and without losing its integrity.” As one who grew up in a similar B.C. time and public-plus-private milieu as did Brian Fawcett, I’m cheering here for a book that’s true to its subject and written with authority, integrity and pizzazz. I gave it to all my siblings for Christmas.