Set in Missouri, Jeremy Jackson’s dreamy, imagery-driven memoir opens with a lengthy description of his family’s reaction to a near-tornado. Methodical and foreboding, the opening casts the author as a naive ten-year-old, his older sister Elizabeth as a brazen adventurer, and his grandmother as a woman on the brink of change.
Reading, one responds instinctively to Jackson’s subtle tension-building. In his hands, wind and rain become a perfect storm of free-floating unease. Yet as Jackson delves into lengthy descriptions of visits to his grandparents, Elizabeth’s power struggles with her parents, berry-picking and school-boy crushes, he allows tension’s rope to grow slack. Perhaps intentional, this shift causes the reader’s interest to wane. It’s a pattern he returns to, writing in tense prose about grandmother’s inexplicable nightly pain, only to veer into an unrelated anecdote about mealtime or a fishing trip. Eventually, the early sense of foreboding crystalizes into grandmother’s drawn-out battle with cancer and its impact on the family as a whole. As Jackson delves into this painful period, he delivers both wrenching descriptions and distracting choices.
Writing “Comfortless,” Jackson had access to his sister’s journal, his father’s papers and other family documents, however; this fact is not available to the reader. As a result Jackson’s omnipotence as a narrator feels awkward. His choice to toggle between points of view, slipping into and out of each family member to deliver thoughts he deems germane has an artificiality. A more organic choice might have been simply to disclose the concrete sources of his authority.
Jackson also exhibits a tendency to jump to second person when describing his experiences. Perhaps meant to engage the reader on a more personal level, this movement feels forced. In conjunction with the larger point-of-view shifts as well as Jackson’s choice to intersperse his grandmother’s first-person memories and diary entries, it lends “Comfortless” a crazy-quilt quality.
Still, despite some minor missteps, Jackson has created a memoir both purposefully ordinary and quietly evocative. He paints an affecting portrait of a dying woman’s suffering, its impact on her family and beyond. (Sarah Terez Rosenblum)
“I Will Not Leave You Comfortless”
by Jeremy Jackson
Milkweed Editions, 224 pages, $24
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