Good Morning Midnight: : |
Life and Death in the Wild
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March 30, 2003
By the time the search party found him high atop New Hampshire's Mt. Lafayette in February 2000, Guy Waterman -- a former star Republican aide on Capitol Hill, speechwriter for General Electric bigwigs, author and passionate outdoorsman -- was "hard as marble." His frozen 67-year-old body was on its side; his arms were against his chest, and, in the eyes of one who discovered him in a rock alcove just off the trail, his face bore a Mona Lisa-like smile.
Smiling Waterman very well may have been. He had arrived successfully at a contrived end: a snowy suicide that he had meticulously planned since at least 1998, right down to packing aspirin to hasten unconsciousness. Freezing to death was the last deliberate act of a very deliberate man.
His end was also -- as Chip Brown makes plain in Good Morning Midnight, an engrossing and finely crafted narrative of Waterman's life -- imbued with a wicked irony. Mountain climbing and an iron-strong commitment to an almost impossibly simple Vermont homestead had proved to be restoratives for Waterman, racked as he had been by the familiar, crippling vice of alcoholism.
Waterman left Washington and drinking and his first wife to pursue a new life in the woods of New England with his second wife, Laura. There they could climb, play jazz on their piano and, in a word, escape. Brown calls Barra, the couple's homestead, Waterman's "recollection of childhood happiness."
As much as anything, Good Morning Midnight is a deep exploration of a life lived as close to nature as humanly possible, and Brown deftly renders the day-to-day goings-on of an extraordinary existence: counting blueberries, stuffing pillows with milkweed, reading by kerosene lamp. The result: a literate primer on homesteading, an extreme form of American independence.
But independence, for Waterman, came at a high price: his relationship with his sons. The book thus enters psychoanalytic territory, risky business for any author, but Brown pulls it off with the help of Waterman's letters and unpublished autobiography. Building Barra meant that Waterman couldn't pay for his boys' educations -- "I walked away from that responsibility," he wrote -- and he became, in effect, a deadbeat dad. Heartbreakingly, his son Johnny preceded him in death, vanishing on Alaska's Mount McKinley, while son Bill went on a trip, never returned and was presumed dead. Tired and depressed, Waterman slowly gave up. "I'll be joining Johnny," he wrote just before he died. He planned everything with the consent and even the help of Laura, who showed her husband a rare form of devotion.
"Why did he do it?" is among the first questions any of us asks when we hear of a suicide. Killing oneself is as morally complicated a human subject as one can broach, but never is it done for nothing. Those interested in why one man ended it all -- and in the singular life leading up to his exit -- should read Brown's compelling, eerie dirge of a book.
Reviewed by Robert Schroeder