Monday, December 19, 2011

Finding a Path to True: My GoodReads Review of Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me

Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir. . . of SortsJesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir. . . of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was predisposed to think Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me by Ian Morgan Cron would be great. It was recommended to me by friends, coworkers, a vicar’s wife I met on retreat, even the editor who asked me to review it for Relevant Magazine's year-end best-of-2011 list. I picked up a humidity-soaked copy at the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina in June, where the euphoria surrounding the book was palpable.

I normally resist such mania. Anything that gets that many people so quickly in a lather must be putting something in their drinks first. That may be why I put off reading the book for six months. But it turns out everyone was right. Cron's book is a good memoir that, in the final fifty pages, turns great.

Memoir is a tricky thing to write, trickier than it appears on the surface. You would think that anyone could do it; it seems like simply putting words to paper to tell the story of your life. Cron's memoir covers nearly half a century of life as he's known it, from his Irish Catholic childhood that splits time between Great Britain and New England, during which (no spoiler alert; it's in the book title) his dad works secretly for the CIA. His dad is also an alcoholic with diagnosed Narcissistic Personality Disorder that quickly caught up with his professional life and wreaked havoc on his home life. Plenty of grist for a sensational story, and to write a memoir based on it, given the zeitgeist, seems like a no-brainer.

Ah, but while anyone can write down their story, it takes talent to write a memoir, to tell an intensely personal story that not only compels the reader forward without losing his or her interest (the line between personal and arcane is as fine as it is unforgiving) but universalizes the themes so that the readers can find themselves, and something beyond themselves, in the telling. This is the feat that Cron accomplishes, moving generally effortlessly between the ethereal and the earthy, the sublime and the silly, all in service to the task of finding a path to true--a spiritual and emotional equilibrium that, for the person, approaches a reconciled self.

The book isn't perfect; Cron wears his fondness for (and debt to) writer and radio personality Jean Shepherd on his sleeve. Shepherd is a featured player in one of Cron's moments of epiphany, who was listening to Shepherd's radio program the night he told the story of a childhood friend whose tongue was frozen to a wintry flagpole. That scene was immortalized in Shepherd's short-story-turned-film A Christmas Story. It was Christmastime as I read Cron's book, and I had visited the house featured in the film A Christmas Story earlier in the year, so I may have been especially attuned to the writing style that Cron clearly emulates. But it's not a bad style to emulate, and besides, Cron's a good writer, so it's a generally pleasant homage.

One of the major themes of the book is the Eucharist, which figures prominently in Cron's childhood story and comes full circle when he, as an Episcopal priest, celebrates the mass at the end of the book. The Eucharist is a sacrament, a dispensation of grace, something that every memoir ought to aspire to, in my opinion, and something that Cron manages to achieve here. He mixes humor and sadness like bread and wine, yielding a conversion narrative that rings true in ways that only emerge from the commingling of suffering and faith, of the altar and the therapist's couch, of the body and blood of Christ. We join Cron in his search for a safe home, a caring father, redemption from a deeply scarred past, even though his story is entirely unique; it is in fact through his unique story that his readers are graced with a fundamental truth of the universe: love always stoops, and faith always jumps.

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