"In order to rise
From its own ashes
-Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents
Just when we get the idea we've got a handle on nature's profound power; nature sends out a stern reminder that we've got no ultimate control. Think Hurricane Sandy (a nickname makes no buddy out of the killer). What a buzz nature gets when she can come up with a wonder or a tragedy, we cannot claim and can't figure. I'm getting around to telling you about Philippa Mayall's searing new memoir, Phoenix (Silver Birch Press). You'll see the connection.
Right now I'm thinking of the nineteen firefighters who died in the firestorm in the town of Prescott, 85 miles north of Phoenix; the heroic experts, "hometown boys," the LA Times said. "A perfect storm," said Wade Ward, Head of the Prescott Fire Department (great name there). "They were very cautious, very conservative." As I write this no one has figured out exactly what went wrong. TV's no help: On CNN, Anderson Cooper is all campy with Cher. It's as if this; this massive fire which we cannot blame, solve, understand, analyze and lay on something, is literally unthinkable. Oh, maybe it was lightening: lightning hears no more condemnation than any other weapon of mass destruction. Anyone who'd know for sure is gone. There's no one, no company, no group, to accuse, to punish. For fire is the Accused, and, as well, the Executioner, and has quit the scene. Leaving anguish.
And that anguish will not ease, I know this because in savage coincidence, this memoir Phoenix, Philippa Mayall's first book, has just been published. The book is not set in Arizona, but in the North of England. The title comes from the poem above.
Anyone who knows Flip, as Philippa is called, sighed with gratitude when she'd say she was working on The book -- This book: Phoenix. When Flip first handed it to me, a hulk of typed pages all coming apart in a big red folder, I held it tight.
"Here's my book," she said.
"Sure," I said. It's gonna be crazy. (Yeah).
I started reading (this was drafts ago), I could not stop. This is a real, a serious, no kidding writer, who's had a life burned to a crisp by tragedy. (Read the first pages). This is no simple recovery story. Phoenix has the lust, the furor and passion of Norman Mailer (oh, Google him, for God's sake), of Pynchon, of Kerouac, this book stands up to the fever of some of the clips from the brilliant Kubrick exhibit just closed at LACMA. You start to read, turn away, and you're yanked back; you're drawn by the scalding story of a fourteen year old waking up to find her house, most of her family, on fire, but also clutched by the grit of her style: That's the heft of the North England muscle; it infuses England's best writers. (Shakespeare must have spent a winter or so on the Moors).
Flip's story, the anguished bitter core of her existence, hit when she was fourteen, when she woke up:
I started to feel the smoke on my chest. Like when I went to see my dad at work in the pub and sat in the cigarette-fogged room with his punters, who inhaled and exhaled with every swig of beer. Fagging it, Mam called it. I placed my hands on the window frame and pushed upwards, but it didn't budge. I pushed again.
I banged on the frame with my fists. I wanted to knock some sense into it. I could feel the panic seeping into my lungs with the smoke and my first ever-fleeting sensation that these could be my last moments alive. I could die right here.
We're here, in the North England house on fire; her brothers trapped behind flaming doors, her crazed Mam, who jumped out of her own window, lying (was she dead?) way down on the ground, who was where? Was anyone else alive? How would she get out? Could the fireman get her down that ladder?
She lived. And she spends the rest of the memoir pulling us, with the ravaged and ravishing fist of her dynamic prose, through the exorcism. "Why the hell am I alive? How can I die?" She found the connections who would supply the substances which "will make those scenes go away, stay away."
There are moments of clenching resolve. This will be it. I will get clean. Yeah. Then, it all comes back -- you turn away, can't bear to see, to know anymore. But this artisan of a storyteller's fist does not let us go.
Something worked. Talent, for instance. And commitment. With this fierce memoir, Phoenix, Philippa Mayall comes roaring into the literary world; her sharp and angry Manchester, England voice barges into the pale and tidy tea room of L.A. literature like a Harley with Drone power. Do not ignore the sassy, original glossary at the end of the book; the North England is their "old western" cowboy jargon. Much to be adored. You got to be born there to speak it, to write it with the kick, the punch of its rhythm. Want to know how it sounds? Read Phoenix.