Up Up, Down Down: Essays
When we realize that the imagined store of potential we have for our lives is always about to be measured in relation to what actually ends up happening, it can be difficult to live in the moment. What do we do when our minds cross the line from the present to an anticipation of what our experiences will mean for the future? The question can be especially thorny for writers, as Cheston Knapp shows in his debut essay collection Up Up, Down Down.
The title comes from the opening control pad inputs of the code for 99 lives in the eight-bit Nintendo game Contra, and it was a reference that occurred to me well before its source is revealed in the book, not only because I entered the code countless times in my youth, but because Knapp makes the nostalgia for 1980s – ’90s-era childhood experiences a central subject. Whether revisiting his childhood passion for skateboarding or relating the zealousness of UFO enthusiasts to William James’s theory of spiritual consciousness and his own exploration of religious faith (is up, down also code for high/low?), Knapp explores the rupture between his past and future selves.
The book opens with “Faces of Pain,” a meditation on the line between reality and performance in professional wrestling. Here, Knapp lets us know that he has been recently sacked with the destabilizing sense that his life has no “narrative coherence,” a “Once In A Lifetime” shock of waking up in the house he owns with his beautiful wife and not knowing how he got there. Adulthood, Knapp seems to suggest over the course of the book, is the consequence of growing up with the misguided sense that we were given 99 lives to play a linear game that could be “beaten” at the end, rather than the other way around. “The future, like everything else in my life, wasn’t quite what it used to be.”
Knapp maintains a safe distance as he describes the small-time wrestling outfit’s rented hall, a wood-paneled Lions Club, an hour south of Portland, and marvels at the outlandish costumes worn by the combatants who seem to belong at a “Halloween house party in the Castro.” He is here with a photographer-friend who pressured him to come along and keep him company, with the promise that, “At very least it’ll be an experience.” What does that mean, though, for someone who has come to believe that “there seemed to be unproblematic and ‘authentic’ experience out there in the world to be had…only not by me”? It means, first of all, that he will be captivated by the kinetic energy contained in the metal folding chairs set up for the audience, who he “could just tell…wanted to see used later as weapons.” Knapp will spend months reporting on the regional wrestling scene, only to come across a photo of himself captured in the crowd at one of the events, “convicted” of staying out of harm’s way. Ultimately, he will make himself drive out to the promoter’s training facility, to see what it feels like to get in the ring.
Knapp weaves the wrestling descriptions in “Faces of Pain” with stories about the fraught relationship between him and his father, a man who made him feel in adolescence that he was at risk of being a “mama’s boy.” The distance he maintains from his father is agonizing because he keeps it up only because he is losing hope that the pain built up over time could be acknowledged, which could allow them to have a better relationship. Does he think that going to the wrestling gym will make him feel any differently about the past, or give him a new sense of acknowledgment that he is a man in his father’s eyes? He won’t tell us one way or the other, and for some reason, we never see the inside of the wrestling facility. Knapp ends the essay at the moment he is about to walk through the door, which led me to read deeply into other moments of potential consequence that come later in the book. In many scenes, we see him edging toward some kind of experience, a potential marker along the journey toward becoming a whole person, “or something.” Throughout, I felt moved to reflect on my own life, and deeply enjoyed considering my own experiences, interests, and nostalgia in relation to his, even as, or especially when, the details moved from the familiar to the foreign. In “Beirut,” which recounts a frat drinking game-turned violent contact sport, he notes the fact that he never got hurt at the table, and often retreated when it grew more dangerous, which in hindsight makes him realize that he had joined the wrong tribe. Still, the essay ends with a scene that fills in the blind spot at the end of “Faces of Pain.” Here he is, caught up in the moment of sweaty, beery combat with the fraternity brothers, shoulder-checking his opponents as he slides across the slick basement floor to claim an errant ping pong ball for his team, brimming with the belief that he is “right where I belonged.”
I never belonged to a frat, nor have I attended a professional wrestling event, or played a drinking game that could have ended with missing teeth, but I know what he is talking about when it comes to the intersecting desires for danger and acceptance. This past summer, I spent many hours each week at a mixed martial arts gym, where members with fitness and self-improvement goals had the opportunity to spar with amateur and professional fighters. When I was kicked hard by an aggressive character who competes in internationally-ranked events, I left with a fractured rib. What drew me to that gym each week, where I was regularly punched in the head and thrown to the ground? And why did I feel a kind of elation amidst the pain, frustration, and anger after the injury?
The ache for connection is felt throughout the book, and Knapp has an interesting tendency to write lustful descriptions of friends and potential friends, often portraying them as magnetic, superior beings: “Kyle casts an unmistakable aura”; “[Lucky] was a blond lifeguard type, a triathlete [with] a host of Stoic Southern Guy personality traits I wished I had”; “[Scott] is one of Those People…annoyingly above average at everything he does. And whatever that happens to be, he always looks good doing it.” This openness about the quasi-homoerotic feelings in close male friendships brings a rare sense of vulnerability to the subject matter of bro-dom in literature. The vulnerability is rare not because of the slouchy, scruffy, self-deprecating persona he cultivates in the essays, or the occasional tendency to humor himself with the residue of homophobic jokes that he grew up with and admits to holding onto (“a Halloween house party in the Castro”?), but because it is thoroughly earnest.
The desire to connect is embedded in a dream to somehow unify the experiences of his life with the world of literature, and make his own imprint as a writer. For years, Knapp tells us, he has identified primarily as an editor for Tin House and a teacher at the journal’s annual summer writing conference, and the proximity to an endless stream of successful authors led him to wonder if he “would always only help others tell their stories.” In “Neighborhood Watch,” Knapp explores the meaning of his friendship with a group of older men who played tennis in his neighborhood through the “knotty questions” that persist for him around race and gentrification. “Most of these guys were black,” he writes, “and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this was a large part of what appealed to me, why I wanted in.” One of the men, Peter, lives across the street from him, becomes a surrogate father figure, and captivates Knapp because of his “wildness” and “musk of authenticity.” In an essay that flirts with tokenism, a transgression Knapp tells us he would prefer to avoid, he asks himself why he valued this connection so deeply, even as their friendship faded. It takes a funeral scene and input from his wife to realize that he may have been making more out of things than what was there, but this also gives him the opportunity to save the essay. He pushes the ending beyond the bounds of what he tends to prefer in the pieces he edits for Tin House, the parameters he also set for “Faces of Pain,” because in this case a “fizzling menace of partial resolution” would be “just a trick of time, a contrivance.” It’s a risky move, but he gives us the best sketch he can, however glimmering, of what he’s been chasing: “In the end, what I was on the hunt for, and what I suspected I’d never find, was a way to express my astonishment at what remains, at the fact that time goes on and stories take shape,” both in literature and in life.
Most of the essays have been published elsewhere, but the final two essays seem to have been written specifically for the book. They rumble with ambition, as Knapp uses them to explore themes more deeply and tie new knots with loose ends, but they also seem overwritten at times, especially the last one, “Something’s Gotta Give,” about enrolling in a skateboard camp in an effort to face his crippling sense of nostalgia. Still, it is easy to forgive the misfires, just as it is to overlook his taste in music (a key scene involves driving and listening to the Grateful Dead), because of the consistent heights that are reached throughout the book.
Speaking of music: one of the freest, most transcendent moments occurs during a drunken roadside scene in which the fratastic Third-Eye-Blind blasts from inside a bro-filled van. While taking a leak at the edge of the woods off the highway, he thinks about his father’s love and pain, a man he has humbled for his readers along the way. After he tells Knapp about a new girlfriend, a “‘cheerleader type’” who “used to get busy with Kenny Loggins,” he reflects, “Was Dad boasting about his new Eskimo brother? Bragging about having entered the danger zone? It was as though my past were eroding away.” Amazingly, he manages to write his way back to this feeling from the boozy, spliff-clouded darkness of a long piss while a van of fellow skate- and snowboarders wait for him to finish, and discovers that the less he knows his father, the closer they can become. They are entwined by the journey they’ve taken together, and there is much to discover in his father about himself. On his way back to the van, everyone is singing along to the song “Jumper” (“Maybe today/you could put the past away…”), which in his mind is the perfect song for the moment—”too perfect, too neat.” But not everything is a story, and some things are meant to be lived.