Some writers’ blurbs beg for expansion into full-length memoirs. Take, for instance, that of Deni Y. Béchard, a writer “born in British Columbia to a loving and health-conscious American mother and a French-Canadian father with a penchant for crime and storytelling.” Here is a writer born into not only a conflict of cultures, but also conflicts of care and violence, self-preservation and self-destruction. In Cures for Hunger, his memoir of youth, Béchard attempts to reconcile these conflicts.
At its heart, Cures for Hunger is a story of how family history can influence personal identity. It’s an idea Béchard explored in his debut novel Vandal Love, winner of the 2007 Commonwealth Prize for best first book. (Although Vandal Love was previously available in Canada, France, and Egypt, Milkweed Editions released the first U.S. edition concurrently with Cures for Hunger.) Now, in his first memoir, Béchard finds that it isn't until he understands his enigmatic father that he can truly understand himself. Yet understanding his father, André, proves difficult and elusive. André’s past is near impossible to recapture, because of its recklessness, the aliases André used throughout his criminal life, and the unreliability of oral history and self-disclosure.
Were it not for the seductive prologue, in which we learn that André will eventually die a quiet, penniless death in the woods outside Vancouver, Cures for Hunger would read very much like a standard coming-of-age memoir. As it is, the prologue allows us to glimpse Deni as a young adult attempting to make sense of his father’s murky past. Prior to his death, André leaves a few details as to his true identity: the name of his mother; the location of the homestead he had fled thirty years earlier; and his birth name, Edwin, signaling that he'd lived much of his adult life under an assumed identity. Deni is thus charged with first defining the father he knew and then supplanting that information with what he hopes, in time, will resemble the actual truth:
I considered the names like keys to his past: the landscape of his youth, the face he’d worn as a boy. I’d never seen a photo of him from before he met my mother. Through his family, would I be able to make sense of the man whose reckless passions had shaped my life?
With this goal in mind, then, Cures for Hunger narrates the events that both drive Deni and André apart and draw them back together. Throughout his youth, Deni moves between his mother, brother, and sister in Virginia and his father in Vancouver. This constant migration comes to be his method of rebellion, fleeing his separate families and for a time even living out of his car. What this arrangement lacks in stability, it makes up for in freedom and opportunity. Deni’s hunger is for adventure. So when he learns of his father’s rap sheet—which includes, of all romantic criminal endeavors, robbing as many as fifty banks—he turns his attention to teasing out the truth of André’s past rebellion and history of violence.
Over the course of years, father and son construct a tenuous relationship built upon storytelling, in which André is at first reluctant to delve into his criminal past but in time regales Deni with lurid, detailed accounts: a Hollywood burglary gone bad, an assault on a pimp in Miami, blown earnings in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. The two men’s most intimate moments come in a series of late-night collect calls while Deni is enrolled at college, shortly before André's death.
Cures for Hunger illustrates the ways in which storytelling can act as a means of self-discovery. By crafting his criminal past into a series of narratives, André comes to understand the motives that shaped his hardscrabble existence. And in listening to his father’s tales and recording them in his notebooks, Deni recognizes their role in defining his own identity. The robberies and fights—the rebellion in general—become unimportant and are replaced by unanswered questions about André’s boyhood in Quebec and the story of how he once fled his own parents and siblings. In grappling with this hunger for escape shared between father and son, Béchard writes,
Where did such longings reside in us, passed on through blood or stories, through a father’s distant gaze as he tells his son of far-off places? It seemed to me then, hearing his words, that a father’s life is a boy’s first story.
Writing the manuscript that would become Cures for Hunger served as Deni’s act of discovery. But that’s not to say that his self-awareness came easily; in fact, Béchard writes in the epilogue that he composed the first draft of this memoir in two weeks, then spent seventeen years revising and refining the material.
Béchard’s writing style is workmanlike and spare, an approach that leads to a couple of outcomes: although moments of insight appear that much more revelatory, they can also feel a bit overwrought. Sections and chapters often begin with pastoral description meant to establish the physicality of scene, but because the memoir crosses such a broad spectrum of time and location, these transitions sometimes fail to indicate the continuity of one experience to the next.
In the end, Cures for Hunger is flush with tenderness. Its characters fail to adequately care for one another, but that’s not to say that they are careless, carefree, or that they lack compassion. They mistreat each other not out of dislike or disregard, but because in the hostile, volatile world one must attend first to his own survival. Though they are destined to remain unsatisfied, they are entirely free from self-pity—refreshing for a memoir about (among many other things) a dysfunctional family. And Cures for Hunger is much more than a memoir of youthful misadventure, though it contains plenty of that. It’s also an exploration of the oppression of lineage, of familial duty, wanderlust, and perennial dissatisfaction, and the most American theme of them all: personal reinvention.
Joseph Holt teaches at the University of Minnesota. His book reviews have also appeared in North Dakota Quarterly and Colorado Review.
Cures for Hunger
Deni Y. Béchard
Milkweed Editions, 2012
$24.00 (hardcover), ISBN-10: 1571313311