Book Review of The
Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life by Floyd Skloot
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 11/22/08
Few writers have lived exciting lives with Jack London-type adventures. Yet in Floyd Skloot’s latest memoir, The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life, one is given a quiet slice of Americana that is neither extraordinary nor shaped with lyrical passion, but is much more solidly written than most memoirs published on similar topics. And by “similar topics,” I mean the standard “writer’s life” written by yet another upper middle class suburbanite complaining about the woes of suburbia. Instead, I found it a relief to read about a real person with real life issues, rather than the clichéd hyperbole found from most writers (alcoholism, self-indulgence, drug use, etc.) brought on themselves.
The book is well structured and divided into three parts. Part One: Home Economics for Halfbacks deals with the author’s childhood, growing up as a Baby Boomer in Brooklyn, coupled with his love for baseball. Yet early on, readers are given insights into Skloot’s character, as a boy who came to accept his own limits. By the age of fifteen he admits he knew he did not have what it took to be a professional baseball player. At a height of only five feet four inches, he states:
“I was too small. Besides, in the rare moments of honesty about my baseball talent, I could admit that I wasn’t good enough.”
It’s this kind of self-awareness that is lacking from so many writers’ memoirs that one has to wonder why so many today cannot realize for themselves the same? This brings us then to Part Two: When the Clock Stops. In this section, Skloot discusses the impact that several writers have had upon him, notably William Faulkner and Thomas Hardy. He notes that great writing is what “could stop time and thereby make time come to life, transporting the reader, as it must have transported the writer, into another dimension.”
His examinations of Hardy elicit an examination of himself, and he admits that Hardy was a novelist of hits and also “mid-career messes.” When reading Hardy’s novel The Trumpet Major, for example, Skloot acknowledges that Hardy was merely “going through the motions” and recognizes, “I was learning about the consequences when a writer creates primarily by will, without passion or full engagement.” Being that Skloot himself is a writer, and this is a memoir about a writer’s life, it would have benefited to see more digression on what exactly made Hardy’s “mid-career messes” just that, and how do those same patterns pertain to today’s writing world?
The preface notes that in 1988, Skloot suffered from a virus that impacted his brain. Some of the “neurological tatters” that resulted include an inability to write for a number of years, a struggle to read even the most simple sentences, and also a difficulty in abstract reasoning. Yet none of this impacts the opinion I have for the book. It is what it is. The prose reads straightforwardly, and Skloot seems to adapt this take-me-for-what-I-am mentality, which makes him come across as a likable guy. It is this matter of fact approach and lack of self-pity that not only benefits his character, but narratively shapes it as well.
Part Three: Travels in Lavender and Light centers around Skloot’s mother who is suffering from dementia that has caused her to “forget her own forgetting.” He notes a comparison between her memory loss and the result of his brain virus, where his own memory remains scattered and often contained by others. “They had sentences, paragraphs, sometimes whole pages of my Book of Self.” It is this memory loss that Skloot admits made him “part of something larger.” It is an interesting philosophical concept that could have resonated more with further probing.
Skloot fans will likely enjoy the experience, but first timers will be craving something deeper, wanting more insight into writing as an art, rather than just reading about the writers Skloot “likes.” Therefore, the book is not a must have. The title refers to an old fashioned Zenith television screen—this image from his youth that “seemed to be letting go of its dreams.” The Wink of the Zenith provides momentary slices of mind, quiet slices of dream, even if only at surface level.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Philadelphia Inquirer website.]
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