Through a Glass, Outwardly: Memoirist Misses Inner Picture
A Contrary review by Thomas Larson

        In Hofsós, Iceland, in the land of his ancestors, Bill Holm spends his summers writing, playing the piano, and being "completely, stupidly happy." The picture window of his modest second home frames a vast mountain range and a fjord of immense beauty. Through it Holm also sees waves breaking (brim) on the cape (nes). He learns a bit of the tongue, digs into Iceland’s myths and history, cobbles together some family narrative while musing on the abject conditions his family fled for Minnesota. When he’s not ga-ga with joy and things Icelandic in the midnight sun, he’s fulminating about the USA.
        The sixty-something Holm announces himself an antiestablishmentarian like Thoreau. He writes that Henry David once "found his angle of vision at his cabin on Walden Pond. I had to go outside the United States to find mine. The country has gotten too big, too noisy, too populated, too frenzied—probably too brainlessly religious, media crazed, shopaholic, and warlike for me to see anything but a vast cloud of human white noise."
        At issue are two apotheosized ideas: what’s right about the places our great grandparents left and what’s wrong about how we’ve abandoned their sensitivity to nature. The best part of the book is Holm’s recapturing that sensitivity: "If the earth here is sparely inhabited by human, animal, tree, or crop, the air above it is filled with a veritable multitude of wings and feathers and songs."
        Fine. But in the long chapter, "Silence and Noise," Holm stews on America. Recalling his arrival at his doctor’s office for a cholesterol check, he goes ballistic hearing the waiting room’s piped-in Muzak. Everything, he writes, is screaming fear and isolation: 9/11, TV ads, electronic gadgets. It’s all killing us. Rather than see our common predicament, Holm too often turns the volume up, justifying, it seems, his need to flee. Comedian Craig Ferguson’s line makes sense here: just because you shout louder than anyone else doesn’t make what you’re saying true—and I write this even as I admire Holm’s pinging verities and his arrow’s aim.
        Amid Iceland’s 300,000 people and vistas of lava fields and twisty coastline, there is the "silence in nature . . . a nourishing silence that fills human beings with joy, wisdom, calm, and the intuition of the inner life." Who would disagree? Who would not love the birds and the wild horses and the serenity Holm celebrates? But making media-saturated America the dumb side of an either/or dichotomy is intellectually shallow.
        To the degree that Holm extols Iceland, he lambasts America. Neither gets at the underbelly of the writer’s anger, though his embrace of the island nation feels sincere. Windows can get stuck in his avidity for geography and genealogy; litanies of unpronounceable Icelandic names become annoying. I was also surprised that Holm paints Icelanders in utter pastel tones. Think, man. During those winters, being boxed in the cabin and fishing the same ice hole, how many Einars have gone mad and made sausage of their relatives?
        Iceland, of course, has none of the pitfalls of American empire; its barrenness and small population provide no economic export. Anyone immigrating there? Its neighborliness, fishing, farmer-poets, passionless secularism are worth lauding. But their bug-free, tombstone-quiet summers don’t make our country a shit hole. Holm’s tactlessness invites the question—the memoirist’s question, which he does not tap: How has the incompatibility of these two cultures compromised his sensibility? Now there’s a book worth reading. It’s too bad, too, because he once tapped that question about China, America, and himself in his mindful, Coming Home Crazy.
        My sourness is ultimately about Holm’s positing all the bad outside himself: either you’re with the Icelanders or you’re with the Americans. Leaving America, he selects only a CD player and some CDs, leaving unremarked-on the ample stash of personal stuff from which he’s chosen. He seems no different than the tourist Gauguin in Tahiti. He’s a weekender at best who will, like the rest of us, be corrupted by that ample stash once he comes home.
        A Philippic is not a memoir, and a window will not see into one’s resentment unless the glass is turned inward.

Thomas Larson is a contributing writer for the weekly San Diego Reader and the author of The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative, published in June 2007, by Swallow Press.

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The Windows of Brimnes
by Bill Holm
2007, MIlkweed Editions
commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | spring 2008

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