A millstone made of memories hangs from your neck. It bends your neck and slumps your shoulders. You tell yourself, Stand up straight, but it returns, it swings, it’s never far away. There are, without doubt, memories that cannot be exorcised or banished once and for all, or pushed deep so as not to reappear. This is especially true when those memories are of home, and home is a place to which you must sometimes return.
When I go back to the small mountain town in North Carolina where I grew up, to the house on top of the hill, I feel all the darkness of my youth descend, and it follows me like a shadow while I’m there. It stands behind me and tries to see things through my eyes.
The house on the hill is a picture of isolation. I walk out onto the porch overlooking the wide pasture as it slopes down to a faraway fence, the grass wet and dappled with yellow. In lightening shades, time-weathered mountains in the south and west ascend slowly and lie low and dark against the sky, concealing the horizon and making the world finite and near. A dogwood tree stands alone at the edge of the garden, an abandoned nest and a few early blossoms serving as its only adornments. There are few other signs of life. The trees marking the edge of the pasture are without leaves, and a sense of winter remains. My mother – now living alone on the hill – walks out behind me and says, ‘What’s wrong?’ I smile and say, ‘Nothing,’ and we retreat inside. The millstone swings.
My memories of this remote place as a boy are boundless green and timeless with a night sky of perpetual starlight overhead. But innocence is quickly lost. It was in this house on the hill that I witnessed my father’s dependent diseases of alcoholism and depression find root and grow like weeds around our family, strangling him over a period of years. These malignancies, for which he steadfastly refuses treatment even to this day, have all but stolen his life. Rising in the morning after the sun, he would dress himself in the dark and couldn’t bear to see his own face in the mirror. He didn’t want to see what he’d become. In the evening, after a day of work and nerves awry, he’d return trembling to the cabinet and slowly pull a curtain around his consciousness where he’d sit hidden from all of us. As he withdrew from life, I watched as my mother unknowingly enabled him, lost him, drove him away, as delusions of a happier past lured him into oblivion and broke her heart time and again until the damage was too great to repair. She was left alone and longing for a man who never loved her. But this came later.
At sixteen years old, in this town, and in the context of the lonely house on the hill and a disappearing father, I became an adolescent parent. Ashamed, and perceiving judgment and opprobrium where likely none existed, I became an outsider, and I’ve never found my way back in again. The truth is, I’ve never tried.
When my daughter was still a child, I left, heavy-hearted, and went away to college, and then later to law school. Her mother, who was younger than me, stayed in our hometown for a time, and our daughter stayed with her. I would visit on weekends, but not all weekends, and not nearly often enough. When I would come home, I would return to the house on the hill and my daughter and I would sit for hours in the bedroom that she used there, and I would read to her. Upstairs there was a modest library, and downstairs, almost immediately below, was another small library. My daughter and I, she being an outcast by inheritance, found solace and momentary escape from our respective circumstances in this world of books. It was our saving grace, and it would provide the foundation for our view of this life.
I promised her that one day soon, once I’d graduated and found a good job, we’d get a house of our own, and that she’d have her own room, and we’d build a magnificent library to hold all of our books. This day never came. Time intervened and continued to move, and while we were both waiting for life to bring us together as parent and child, she grew up and much of her childhood was lost to me. This, all this, was a millstone I would carry.
And so I set out to write The Barrowfields. I did so without any intent to describe the factual circumstances of my youth, or to tell the story of my family, for to do so would have been too close and too familiar. With the benefit of hindsight, and reflecting now on how The Barrowfields came to be, I realize that I created the world depicted in the book – a small, insular town in the mountains of North Carolina known as Old Buckram, and places beyond – as a landscape upon which to set a different story, but all of it drawn carefully out of the same black reservoir of experience and emotion. This is, I believe, what writers often do.
The Barrowfields is, in a manner of speaking, an emotional autobiography, rather than a factual one. This is surely apparent in certain parallels that may be obvious to anyone who has read the book and this article. For example, while there is not an adolescent father and a young, precocious daughter, there is a brother and his young sister, both of whom define their lives, and have their lives defined, by books and the written word. The grief and regret he experiences upon leaving home while she stays forlornly behind were, of course, well known to me by experience.
The writings and writing philosophy of the North Carolina writer Thomas Wolfe supplied much of the inspiration for the emotional honesty of the book. Wolfe believed that the essential job of the writer is to transform life experiences and observations ‘into the terms of poetic and imaginative fact – into the truth of fiction’. Out of the superabundancy of words written by Wolfe (the original manuscript for Look Homeward, Angel contained more than 350,000; October Fair, a portion of which would become Of Time and the River, had more than a million), you can take almost any single paragraph and in it you will find an honesty of perception, recollection, and description that, in my opinion, is rare in the catalog of American letters. In reading Wolfe (and Styron and others), I arrived at the conclusion, possibly misguided, that a sincere observation followed by a sincere utterance is the most powerful and effective form of communication – at least for works of fiction. I wrote The Barrowfields guided by this philosophy, such that the words and passages contained within its pages aspire to portray life in its most genuine and authentic form. I learned, of course, what so many writers have learned, which is that this task is easier said than done, and nearly impossible to do well. Nevertheless, the book represents a deliberate attempt to transform my life experiences into the truth of fiction, as Wolfe would say. It was a way to lift the millstone, to examine it in the bright light of day, and articulate its weight.
Phillip Lewis’s The Barrowfields is published by Sceptre Books.
Photograph © Erin Johnson