Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Review of Falling Room from IR 29.1

Eli Hastings, Falling Room. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2006. $17.95 paper (ISBN 0-8032-7364-9), 175 pages.

Reviewed by Jackson Brown

Coming to terms with disparity, especially that which exists between personal perception and firsthand experience, is a common trope for the coming-of-age story. In Falling Room, Eli Hastings’ first collection of nonfiction, disparity itself becomes the narrative focus, rendering episodes of Hastings’ already uncommon personal experience—spills through Caribbean calypso clubs, missions for meds in Mexico’s underbelly, and lessons in faith from a psych ward resident—in a provocatively political light. The first five pieces of the collection map out the nascent political consciousness of Hastings’ adolescence and young adulthood, depicting socioeconomic disparity in the eclipse of the working- and middle-class Seattle of his youth by the techno-boom of the eighties and nineties. The stakes of this cultural divide become personal for Hastings early on, as an emerging commercial youth culture troubles his own shadowy adolescent clique, which, as Hastings puts it, is “working at vanishing.”

Distinguishing his teenage years from the tidy packaging of a discontented “grunge” culture, Hastings portrays his adolescence as influenced by hip-hop and psychedelics, recounting clandestine escapes with his friends from the protective womb of suburbia to drop acid, spray paint (or “write”) on inner-city high-rises, and explore the gritty mystery of urban Seattle. These flirtations with the criminal world indeed come across as angst-ridden, but are executed with the cool level-headedness of self-conscious social privilege. Willingly unaware, but watchful, parents are portrayed as always waiting in the wings; the safe assurance of an exurban homecoming sits on the periphery of each caper.
The figures that Hastings encounters and eventually comes to identify with during these exploits, however, convey less teenage torment than a sort of quiet weariness: a suit-clad homeless man compulsively sweeping a stretch of sidewalk in Seattle’s financial district throughout the day, rewarded with a single cup of coffee; an elderly streetwalker obliquely probing a teenage Hastings with questions to discern if he’s a prostitute; a benevolent Nicaraguan auto shop owner in Hastings’ college town, menaced by the LAPD. By the conclusion of “Intersection,” Falling Room’s sixth piece, a growing awareness of America’s socioeconomic divide prompts Hastings and his friends to vow greater political awareness and activism. He laments, “[…] the books and discourses that crowded our desks and our minds failed to contain the promise we needed to hear—and to make.”
This “promise” of political activism is portrayed as frequently at odds with Hastings’ coinciding desire to “lose himself,” whether through drugs or in the exotic milieu of Central America. We see a similar desire in his father, who, in the collection’s title piece, ends up in Intensive Care after taking an eight-story plummet while hiking in Costa Rica and who consequently develops an addiction to painkillers. This internal struggle, however, never fully obstructs Hastings’ political questioning and exploration. We see a perseverant spirit imparted from father to son in the closing moments of the story as Hastings holds vigil at the hospital after being informed that his father hasn’t much longer to live:

[…] I take his hand. And then he gives me a bone-crushing squeeze and his eyes bulge and scan beneath their lids. Some moments later I turn and walk past the befuddled doctor and out into the night. My father and I are not ready to say goodbye, not ready to dignify death.

The next six pieces in Falling Room transport us as far away as Cuba, Nicaragua, and Panama, Hastings veering off the beaten path to dive into the native cultures and the political perspectives of the locals. While these stories generally avoid the heavy-handed exoticism of weaker travel literature, some parts do lack a certain degree of nuance, Hastings’ hazy recollections of his own drug-induced episodes rendering his portrayal of Caribbean nightlife with the same dusky obscurity as his depictions of his nightly haunts at home—aside from a few of Panamanian fishermen and Cuban prostitutes painted in the shadows. To some degree, this correlation of two worlds feels intentional, the collection above all stressing the cross-cultural and class-permeable universality of human connection. But as we slide from his fortune-telling session with a priest of Santeria, to a pot-smoking circle with Cuban hip-hoppers, the political drive and narrative direction of the stories seem, at times, haphazard.
Narrative meandering, however, does mimic the overall trajectory and structure of the book, these six pieces alternating between Hastings’ travel tales and various episodes of his life in the States—coping with his best friend’s bouts with mental illness and his father’s drug rehabilitation, his own arrest at a WTO protest in downtown Seattle. However far-flung these stories’ settings and themes, each piece resonates with alternating sincerity, humor, and wonder; each is an integral episode in Hastings’ quest for understanding political differences at home and abroad, as well as the personal disparity between his childhood and his adult life.
The book’s final three stories shift the thematic focus for a quiet ending, presenting differing images of places Hastings has called home: a muggy Wilmington, North Carolina where he encounters frequent racial tension as he works toward an MFA; the hushed rooms of his father’s house in Seattle, containing pieces of his childhood that evoke both memory and uncertainty; and his mother’s mountain home, set far from the city, a symbol of the exploratory spirit his parents embraced in their initial move out west. Falling Room, too, manages to embrace this exploratory spirit throughout its pages, fusing the collection through a voice that is hopeful, yet unsentimental, and always seeking answers.

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