The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

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MAY 2012 Issue

Here Comes A Regular

Dylan Hicks
Boarded Windows
(Coffee House Press, May 2012)

Nabokov once said that to call a story true was an insult to both truth and art. He was discussing the genesis of literature beginning with the boy who cried wolf, i.e. the difference between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall tale, and that between the two is the art of literature. In the words of the late Cornell professor, “every great writer is a great deceiver.” This paraphrastic tidbit of literary ephemera bubbled up when reading Boarded Windows, the debut memoir-esque novel by the Minneapolis musician and writer Dylan Hicks.

The author’s unnamed and orphaned middle-aged narrator recalls a day in October of ’91, two months before his 21st birthday. He was working at a record store and spending his evenings stoned, when he received an unexpected visit from his deadbeat, supposed “father,” Wade Salem, a roving musician who asked to crash with him and his girlfriend, Wanda. Told from a tenuous present that is almost as nebulous as the past, the story is a memory of memories, or, as the narrator suggests, embroidered embroidery in the search for truth about his real parents, his adoptive mother, and Wade. “My story,” the narrator explains, “is drawn from other stories,” the conflicting stories of his adoptive mother, Marleen, and Wade. It is also one of the most tender, if not saddest, tales I’ve come across this year.

What drives the book—and by the way, it is worth your hard-earned clams, a must read—is the narrator’s ache for a family and home, and ultimately his obsession with his missing father and somewhat idealized feelings and memories of Wade Salem, who turned out to be a callous disappointment that he still longs for. This makes for some delicious heartache as the reader gets to “know” the infuriating but irresistible Wade—an aesthete drug dealer who cuts pizza with scissors and likes to say things like, “Can I borrow 10 bucks?” and religiously dismisses the relevance of fact in the veracity of the model’s red pubic hair in Courbet’s “The Origin of the World”: “You have to remember that Le Réalisme wasn’t a fussbudget documentarian’s fidelity to prosaic reality but a prophet’s allegiance to essential truth.”

Memoir, by nature, is a reproduction of one’s life, a mirror of what was; and in the case of our nameless narrator, his is a mirror of mirrors because his “true” origin is unknowable to him, as he eventually finds out from the unreliable raconteur, teller of tall tales, Wade Salem. But of course, our narrator is also unreliable. By seven pages in, our depressed narrator who “hasn’t cried in over a decade,” and doesn’t “hear the music in the same flooding way” he used to, confesses, “That’s more than I remember from that night. It was nearly 20 years ago.”

This is the same narrator who professes to have been an inarticulate fool with unsophisticated reading habits, yet 20 years later, he uses words like macrocephalic, amnestic, and physiognomic. What’s interesting about this is not that he increased his lexicon, but that the language both mirrors Wade’s and conflates it, thereby undermining the narrator’s search for historical truth and keeping the reader guessing. Take, for instance, the names, Wade and Wanda, or his two mothers, the biological Martha Dickson and the adoptive Marleen Deskin. Who is the “real” mother? Does it matter? If this book were announcing itself as fiction (which it is), this would seem like heavy-handed coincidence (and maybe it is), but this book is not pretending at fiction, it’s posing as nonfiction. And brilliantly, I might add. This mirroring continues to the narrator and the musician/author, Dylan Hicks, who offers a free album with a purchase of his book, with the conceit that Hicks is covering the songs of fictitious country singer Bolling Greene, one of the narrator’s favorite songwriters. Boarded Windows and the ancillary CD are ingenious mergers of fact and fiction, best exemplified in the following quote where Wade, via the narrator, i.e. Hicks, are all, in essence, using the same technique to compromise truth:

It was hard to know, when Wade was telling the truth, and I think one of his tricks was to make some truths sound like lies, so that if you discovered enough of his seeming lies to be after all true, you might start to think that everything he said was true.

Wade is the regular in the bar spinning yarns that passage between the wolf in tall grass and the wolf in the tall tale. But this book is not merely a postmodern exercise in notions of truth, nor is it merely funny and intelligent; it is fundamentally a sincere and heartbreaking tale of loneliness, a man who comes to realize that the windows to his life, home, and family are inherently boarded up.


Michael Makowski


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

All Issues