'Hole in the Sky' by William Kittredge

Think of William Kittredge as a man on the wrong side of the window, a man seemingly incapable of getting to the other side. Time and again he would look out that window and marvel at the sight of a mother pushing her first-born down the street in a stroller--nothing particularly unusual or poignant except for this: The mother was his wife and the child his daughter, and they would always walk out of sight and William Kittredge would always stay where he was, frozen in place, frozen in the heart.

He couldn't find emotional purchase in any part of his life, a condition that eventually left him shaking helplessly in bed. "I was a secret," he writes. "I was a book nobody could read, not even me." His wife sought to heal him with intimacy, but the relief that provided was soon destroyed by the silence strangling their marriage.

Silence defined Kittredge's life then and for years afterward; it was the natural by-product of growing up in a family where love went unmentioned. His grandfather preached that hard work was all that mattered, hard work that paid off in money, property and power. The old man had a sprawling ranch in southeastern Oregon to prove it. He apparently needed nothing more. Kittredge did.

He needed to soften the lump of coal his heart had become, to recapture his youthful connection not only to mankind but to nature. The pains he took to do this, and the pain he suffered in the process, are the spine of "Hole in the Sky," which is modestly billed as a memoir when it should be trumpeted as an act of courage. For rare is the writer who is as unflinchingly honest as Kittredge about his hostilities and resentments, his regrets and shame.

Sometimes his loathing for his old self seems excessive, as when he thinks back to his whining during a boyhood sullied only by a short bout with polio and declares, "What a fool of a child I must have been." But when Kittredge recalls his time as farming boss on the family spread, eight miserable years between the Air Force and his first real strides as a writer, eight years lowlighted by his firing of an ex-convict in need of a break, you can't argue when he calls himself a five-letter obscenity. You can only admire him for admitting it.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Kittredge's work understands, of course, that he is as blunt and uncompromising as the land that spawned him. The author of two story collections and an essayist for such magazines as Esquire and Outside, he has become in his 60s a major figure in the literary West, an observer and stylist who deserves to be mentioned with Thomas McGuane and Wallace Stegner. Kittredge writes his sentences with the calloused hands of an honest craftsman, and he sees the world around him and the life he has led with eyes that never blink.

Don't take that or anything preceding it to mean he is incapable of love or reverie, though. His prose absolutely sings when he recalls his barefoot wanderings on summer mornings as a boy: "The air was thick with the reek of damp sage and greasewood and the raw odor of the apple orchard in full blossom, and the stench of cowshit from the shed where Clyde Bolton milked the three cows my father insisted on keeping. That boy felt like he was full of the world, breathing it into himself, and he was."

But the magic of those mornings didn't last for Kittredge. It was eaten away by the acid of his family's success, the very same success that the Depression couldn't shake. His mother fell under the spell of politics, his father raised hell with airplanes, racehorses and Hollywood types, and in the end all they had in common was divorce. Still, their parting was almost blissful compared to the cold war that the family patriarch waged on Kittredge's father. The old man stopped talking to him, partly as a rebuke to Demon Fun but mostly because he clung to the notion that no cattle rancher should embrace a sodbuster, even when that sodbuster was his own flesh and blood. And when the silence was finally deemed insufficient punishment for a son whose skills ran to irrigation and raising grain, the old man went for the kill--disinheritance.

No wonder there was a hole in Kittredge's sky. He had been born into a metaphor for the worst aspects of American society, the aspects that go unmentioned in an election year even though they contribute to the rotting of the nation's foundation. "We want to own everything, and we demand love," Kittredge writes. "We are like children; we are spoiled and throw tantrums. Our wreckage is everywhere."

Now Kittredge is saying he's sorry for his part in it. Sorry he didn't console his father in troubled times. Sorry he never bothered to thank the ranch hands who guided him toward manhood when they could just as easily have rejected him as the overindulged kid he was. Sorry he ran away from a boy having an epileptic seizure on Guam. Sorry he cheated on his first two wives and never gave his two children all the love he felt for them.

The regrets come pouring down like a hard rain--so many of them that a reader can't help thinking Kittredge would have drowned in his own despair if he hadn't been able to put them on paper. But he has, and that is what gives "Hole in the Sky" a grace note of hopefulness. Save for a lesson in gentleness and patience from a small-town "whoor," he didn't realize such notes were possible until the family decided to sell the ranch. Then it hit him: He was going to be free at last, free to fashion a life of his own invention, a life in which he could be more than just "somebody's son or grandson."

This was as close to an epiphany as Kittredge admits to getting. The rest of the time, he writes, he lurched toward his new self with "a series of evasions. What I did was mostly instinctual. What saved me was luck." He found a beautiful blonde drunk blocking a country road with her convertible, and wound up marrying her; she, in turn, wound up holding his hand until his dream of writing for a living became a reality.

He knocked on poet Richard Hugo's door--"You're very drunk," Hugo said, "I'll join you"--and discovered a running mate who convinced him that anxiety is a normal condition for a writer. And somehow, up in his adopted Montana, he met a woman who got him to try marriage a third time, a woman with whom he can edit books and then bask in the wonders of the mountains and the trees and the great sheltering sky above them.

Anything less and Kittredge might never have summoned the courage to write "Hole in the Sky." Now that it is done, it should serve as both a balm for his old wounds and a means for dealing with his troubled conscience. His pain may never cease, but perhaps it has been eased. Let us hope so.

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