Safe Suicide: Narratives,
Essays, and Meditations
By DeWitt Henry
Red Hen Press, 200 pp., $23
In this interconnected collection of autobiographical essays, we're brought into the fascinating life of a Boston-area novelist and editor struggling to build a viable writing career, sustain an important literary journal, and become a loving husband, father, and friend. Since these struggles are all accompanied by drama and pain (but also unexpected pleasures), DeWitt Henry's vivid collection reads like an absorbing coming-of-age memoir.
Henry is the founding editor of "Ploughshares," a Boston-based literary journal that has published literary luminaries such as Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and Richard Yates. For Henry, "Ploughshares" was a labor of love (meaning, it almost ruined him financially). Henry describes the seat-of-the-pants nature of those early days putting out the journal: "Connie and I would stuff copies into mailing bags, staple the bags, hand address, and put stamps on perhaps 1,000 copies to subscribers . . . Our couch, dining table, chairs, every available surface would be covered with stacks of copies."
Henry became an important part of Boston's literary community. He befriended Boston-based fiction writer Yates, who remains among the most woefully underappreciated writers of the 20th century. After Yates had not been seen for several days, a worried Henry and friend Dan Wakefield went to Yates's apartment: "after we climbed the stairs to his landing, he shouted to us that his door was locked, that someone must get him out, he couldn't get himself out." They got the door open, and Yates "greeted us with crazed, speeding, and brilliant invective." Henry describes the pain of having Yates sent to a mental hospital.
Henry's own writing career was a constant struggle against rejection and self-doubt. "I would send out my second book with high hopes," writes Henry, "only to meet with more rejections - good book, unmarketable. I would come to doubt my own motives and validity . . . I would have the impulse to abandon everything." In strong, intimate prose, Henry describes how he improvised a life, struggling with himself but ultimately finding his way.
Henry's struggles are not all dark. As the father of college-age Ruth, Henry describes being awake in bed while his daughter arrives home at 5:02 a.m. on Sunday after a night of fun. Henry is pulled between leaving her be and racing downstairs to give her the third degree (where were you, what did you do?). Henry considers his dilemma: "I consider and fear the worst, while the poppa in me . . . churns over possibilities, discretions, and indiscretions." Henry can't sleep, wondering "where do my responsibilities lie?"
The book's funniest moment comes when a teenage Ruth gets permission to have her boyfriend sleep over the house. Henry and his wife, Connie, ultimately go upstairs to bed, while Ruth and her boyfriend remain downstairs: "Connie sinks into sleep, but The Poppa lies wide-awake, listening, too aware of myself at sixteen . . . Was that a step, creaking?" When Henry sneaks downstairs and finds daughter and boyfriend in bed making out, he decides against his cool-daddy silence: "Excuse me," he says as calmly as possible (i.e., not calmly), "With freedom goes responsibility! I just want you to hear that."
"Safe Suicide" is held together by Henry's searching voice, his attempts to do the right thing even when it's difficult. The book's trajectory shows him growing into manhood, finding love, work, and a family that gives his life meaning. After describing his journey, Henry ends on a humble note of grace: "Life itself is our glory and ordeal, our measure of heart, and passion. We do our best."
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.