Staff Picks: Exit, Pursued

Karsten recommends Exit, Pursued by Dalton Day:

This book is a mouth, dripping with directions. The way things could have been, maybe, if we had been… what? Faster? Softer? A little less distant? Or a little more? A captivating bundle of impossible plays. The meaning of the stage is redefined; a field, a black hole, a fire. Something to break inside of. A new house for love. The props are bird skeletons and beehives and dirt roads and uncertain stains and infinite hallways. The actors just YOU and ME. Occasionally BOY. Occasionally DOG. Occasionally MOON. But always returning to those familiar faces. And the audience is, as always, a type of wild animal. Fascinating, and hard to predict.

This book is the touch of a very small hand, and it is also the hand that holds that hand, and it is also the hand that holds that hand, and it is also the hand that holds that hand, and on and on for some great amount of time. As YOU and ME calmly discuss the distance between two people, clouds are formed. Nothing is certain beyond what you feel with your hands, beyond what is listed in the stage directions. And even then, maybe. The voice in the fog that you talk to when you can’t get to sleep. That is this book. And it knows you so well already.

This book is a house in which it’s entirely possible someone has died. Which is fine. The possibility, I mean. The house, I mean. This book is a cute little fox that hasn’t eaten anything for days, and wants to lie down. The hair of a person that you no longer see, growing wildly without you. Everything’s on fire and the audience is just kind of sitting there, watching. They’re not even sad, which is fine, but also everyone is sad, which is fine. Kind of like when ME says how “eventually, all of us run or walk into the caves.” That sentence, repeated, echoing hollow in a cave. That is this book.

This book is the time it takes to be ok. And it is also the door that you walk through, again and again, until that time has passed. And even after all of it, still pursued. Ever pursued. This book is the part where you try to be ok with that, too. Which is my favorite part, maybe. Even if it hurts.

Staff Picks: I Am Not Ashamed

Julie recommends I Am Not Ashamed by Barbara Payton:

This month I found myself in a real reading funk. I’d been bashing my head with books I should have read in college but didn’t and trying to play catch-up with all of the “notables” of 2016. Nothing was provoking much delight. I needed a delicious cheeseburger of a book and found satiation in Barbara Payton’s memoir I Am Not Ashamed.

Payton’s voice rose off the page like a gale, blowing my hair straight back. The book begins with a casual forthrightness that makes it impossible to stop reading:

Today, right now I live in a rat-roach (they’re friends) infested apartment with not a bean to my name and I drink too much Rosé wine. I don’t like what the scale tells me. The little money I do accumulate to pay the rent comes from old residuals, poetry and favors to men.

A famous 1950’s Hollywood actress, Payton’s name was once mentioned in the same breath as Debbie Reynolds, Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. “I know it sounds unbelievable,” she writes, “but it’s true that Gregory Peck, Guy Madison, Howard Hughes and other big names were dating me.” She went from making ten grand a week, wearing furs and “dripping ice (diamonds)” to selling her body for just enough money to buy booze. 

Payton calls her life story a rollercoaster ride—this is true, perhaps even an understatement; she also deems the book “a kind of detective story,” one that attempts to piece together the reason(s) for her fall from marquee glory. How could a woman with beauty, power, money, and talent end up disgraced at thirty-five, and dead at thirty-eight? The answer’s heartbreaking to peer into.  Payton knows this; she writes:

I had a body when I was a young kid that raised temperatures wherever I went. Today I have three long knife wounds on my solid frame.

Memoir today is often telescoped on one experience, divorce, addiction, grief. Payton stirs the pot, bringing in all the ingredients of her remarkable life as an actress, poet, mother, and an expat in Mexico, where she spent two years. There’s no overthinking things, the scenes arise naturally as if she were talking to you at a bar, a dressing room, or her squalid apartment.  Her story is so urgent and her voice is so strong that it just pours out with ease and originality, creating a natural balance between vignettes and introspection. Before the term “radical self-acceptance” existed, Payton was living by its premier code.

I just want to be myself. If I’m a disreputable harridan, then tough, that’s what I am. I don’t want to be characters on film. I just want to be me. I think I found out who I am and that’s the way it’s going to be.

After finishing the book, I hungrily googled images of Payton, both when she was in her prime, on the top of the world, and after her life hit the skids and she’d had four failed marriages under her belt and had been busted for writing a bad check to buy wine. Something she wrote about how women are known and understood by men seemed to sting with truth:

A woman is like an iceberg. Only a facade shows. The rest is hidden and it takes months, even years, to find out the mysteries of what’s underneath. 

Payton does not emerge on the other side cleansed or purified or transformed. Nor does she ascend the ladder of success again. That’s how this book makes its mark, it foregrounds the uncrushable human spirit. At its heart, I Am Not Ashamed is a good story—told by a woman who led a full life, multiple lives, really, in one, and despite ending up destitute, Payton’s message is still a hopeful one—live, and do so without regret, without shame.