All the Wrong Places by Philip Connors

Two disclosures on this one: I read an advanced reader’s copy; and I consider the author a friend.

wrong placesFrom the author of Fire Season which I loved so much (first-ever 10 out of 10 here at pagesofjulia) comes a newer and even more personal story. Connors’s first book was about life as a fire lookout in the Gila Wilderness; we learned a great deal about the author himself, including some of the demons he’s fought in his life; but we also learned a lot about federal fire management (historical and present), the flora, fauna and atmosphere of the Gila, and what it’s like to balance the isolation involved in a profession I’d never heard of before, a profession “in its twilight.” It was both a deeply personal book, and a book about the world.

By contrast, All the Wrong Places is a singularly personal story. As briefly mentioned in Fire Season, Connors had a younger brother named Dan, who killed himself when they were both in their early twenties. Connors has written about this event and its aftermath in a few articles since; and now, in book-length form. I can only imagine it was difficult, writing a book about long-term pain.

This story follows Connors from the University of Montana, where he was enrolled at the time of the suicide, through his years working in New York for the Wall Street Journal (which considering his politics is a serious conflict in itself); his experience there during the events of September 11; and his path to becoming a fire lookout. The essence of the book, the questions it asks and tries to answer, are why? and how do I deal with this; who am I to become in this aftermath? He tries to investigate his brother’s death, his decision and final moments; but more than that question, All the Wrong Places considers what Connors will be in his own life, how this effects him, how to deal & recover. It would be too pat for Connors to put a full stop to that questioning, but he does come to some place of …if not conclusion, maybe a degree of acceptance. If not redemption, peace.

Connors’s writing has many strengths, but in this case, the greatest may be his ability to be sometimes, astonishingly, funny even while handling this shocking pain and terrible tragedy. He remains lyrical in the oddest, or most difficult, circumstances. In studying the collected notes of a man obsessed with McDonald’s, who’d visited over 1,000 of them and scrupulously recorded their nuances:

Their banal repetition had a strange poetry to it, a kind of Whitmanesque list-making for the end of the millennium; in almost every instance he’d noted what he’d eaten, and the thought of all those empty calories, millions and millions of them, staggered me.

This poetic description of the absurd and vaguely ghastly, in itself, is oddly satisfying. There’s something intriguing going on there.

In other words, his writing is as fine as ever, humorous and thoughtful and touching, and I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed his voice, which is thoroughly recognizable and comforting.

But less comforting, again, is the subject matter at hand, so painful, and so personal. It’s astounding to think about baring oneself to this extent to anyone willing to buy a book at a bookstore. I consider Phil Connors a friend: after I loved his first book he wrote to me, we corresponded a bit, and then Husband and I got to meet him in person too. I thought I knew him moderately well, but learned so much more in this book. I wonder how that colors my reaction; it’s closer to home this way. The pain of others can be paralyzing; and frankly it’s easier with a degree of remove, as in my former job at a cancer hospital, where my library patrons were held at a professional distance (even though we talked about some pretty personal stuff). I want to compliment Connors’s “bravery” in telling this story, but that feels too simplistic (and I bet he’d brush off the compliment). I’m getting less eloquent here, I know. Thank you, Phil, for sharing your story. I found it riveting, I’m so glad you’re okay, and even though this may not have been your goal, I think it might help some other people.

Rating: 9 faxes.

I read an advanced reader’s copy of this book, which is subject to changes before publication. All the Wrong Places will be published in February 2015.

5 Responses

  1. […] All the Wrong Places, Philip Connors – nonfiction […]

  2. […] …You can read the rest of Tassava’s review here. And, my review of same. […]

  3. […] reviews Fire Season; Julia reviews All the Wrong Places. Tassava reviews Fire Season; Tassava reviews All the Wrong […]

  4. […] second, All the Wrong Places, worked on me differently but still […]

  5. […] This week I finished reading this one. All the things you said, and probably more, as you also said. Really difficult reading sometimes (no, I have not read All the Wrong Places). […]

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