Book review: 'Dogfish Memory' by Joseph A. Dane

Joseph Dane probably didn't know that he was injecting valuable lifeblood into the memoir form when he wrote "Dogfish Memory." He was just trying to come to some kind of peace with the fog of remembrance; to stake a defiant pose against death and faithlessness and see if he could hold it.

Even as he wrote this book, the memoir form had seen better days. The scandal over James Frey's highly fictionalized memoir "A Million Little Pieces" in 2003 didn't help matters. Readers expressed annoyance with memoirs written by authors barely in their 30s. Everyone with a life challenge or a fond memory felt emboldened to launch into a narrative — real or imagined — and pretend they actually understood their lives.

Now here comes the 60-ish Dane trying with no sense of heroics, no nobility, just abject irritation, to either sweep his life clean of half-truths or embrace, once and for all, the ambiguity of hindsight. Again and again he reminds his readers that he really has no idea if his perceptions are correct, or even if the things he thinks happened actually happened.

Maine, as those who have tasted enough of it well know, becomes a state of mind, a place to go to when the current world is not living up to expectations. So Dane, whose forebears were summer people, swanning around grand "cottages" on lawns carved down to the sea in places like Kennebunkport, Swan's Island and Prouts Neck, is wary of "playing Maine." Like his father, who he chides for a lifelong desire to be a "regular guy," Dane longs for the real thing, the real life, free of metaphor, free of narrative, free of human will exerted over sensual memories: sea moss, sand fleas, the smell of "wood paneling and mold and beach roses and salt water."

All of us want to go back to a time before the accumulation of layers began. To do this, to travel back, Dane has to dredge up the good with the bad; he has to pass through the self-hatred, the sneering, doubting, self-loathing and the self-aggrandizement and the romantic illusions, the playing at Maine.

He has to tell us the love story, grudgingly, as if we were pulling it out of him. That story is Linda Jane, in hindsight. Linda Jane born and raised in Maine. The two of them in their 20s — Dane and Linda Jane — sailing and swimming and fishing and driving across the country. Linda Jane married to another man. Linda Jane divorced, now with an alcoholic farmer in Nebraska.

Dane and his lifelong affair with Linda Jane. Linda Jane now dead.

He's mad about it, too. Mad about all the manipulation and drama, decades of it. He's hard on women, lovely in their 20s and 30s, who get old and fat and depressed. He's hurt and he writes in a big, angry way. He writes about all the last times.

This narrative thread is way too broken to craft into the kind of story you might tell a friend. This is a narrative that attracts only readers.

I have never seen a better illustration of how, spider-like and blind, we weave our lives, one tier to the next. I have never seen a memoir so aggressively honest. He wanted to create something true out of these bits of failure (and some glorious moments) and he has done that.

Dane writes about sailing, trying hard not to make it sound too romantic but that's hard. He writes about weather. He writes about his friend who wanted to die and did die after returning from Vietnam. And the stories of his youth — the one about the soldier who fell in water full of dogfish and begged his mates to shoot him while the dogfish ate his legs.

Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.