Farther Off from Heaven: A Memoir by William Humphrey. Knopf, New York. 242 pp.
I remember, I remember The fir trees dark and high; I used to think their slender tops Were close against the sky: It was a childish ignorance But now ’tis little joy To know I’m farther off from heaven Than when I was a boy. — Thomas Hood
There is a time early in life when things seem ordered for the best. That is not to say that life is easy then, or carefree (as adults, observing from their vantage point the lives of children, often wrongly assume), but beyond the urgent concerns and difficulties of life are facts that seem unchangeable: mother and father are there (for some that isn’t true; their experience may be different), and everything, ultimately, will be all right. Many a writer has portrayed that time of innocence — some never write of anything else — and it seems likely that such a period in man’s life relates to his early myths of paradise. There was a time, we insist, when all was right with the world, before some terrible event . . . Around the loss of paradise hover certain ideas: a sense of man’s wrongdoing, belief in a judge, the fact of death. In Genesis, man sins, and the Father — or at least his benevolent relationship to man — seems forever lost; it is because of man’s wrongdoing that death comes into existence. But it seems possible that such an account has the order of things reversed, that actually man becomes aware of death — he realizes that all is not right with the world — and takes the blame on himself, assumes a sense of wrongdoing; looking for a Judge, he settles on the Creator of the world. The wages of Sin are Death, we have been told, but perhaps our falling out of line with God’s will for our lives stems from our anxiety as we confront the fact of death: the wages of Death are Sin.
Farther Off from Heaven concerns William Humphrey’s own loss of paradise. Paradise is not necessarily an idyllic place — it only seems so, by the light that our own consciousness casts over it — and Humphrey’s was an ordinary town named Clarksville, in Texas. Its climate was hardly Edenic: the endless summers were sultry, stifling. Men worked hard, from early in the morning until well into the evening, to scratch out a mean living. Part of Humphrey’s youth was spent in the depths of the Depression, when Texas suffered through a drought that ruined its cotton crop and left its country people penniless and homeless. But within that unlikely setting the young William Humphrey lived in Paradise. He roamed the streets of Clarksville, its dusty roads, back alleys. He knew its shops and businesses. With his father he hunted nearby forests, sometimes penetrating to a wild that seemed as primal as any Eden. His mother was a skilled and dedicated homemaker and, despite many personal problems, surrounded him with affection. But his loss of paradise could not have been more sudden and traumatic.
What I saw stretched on the tabletop looked like a scarecrow thrown there. Its clothes, a suit of coveralls exactly like my own, were dyed with blood, stained with motor oil, ripped and slashed, and the entire body so swollen it seemed to have been stuffed into them. The legs and arms were splayed, twisted, limp. The chest on one side was crushed, forcing out the other side. It looked as if it had been hanged, trampled, like the defiled effigy of a man.
In the early hours of the morning of July 5, 1937, his father was injured in a car accident; he lingered on a few days, then died. It was like the moment in Eden when God proclaimed new conditions for man’s life: things would not be the same again.
As wonderfully portrayed as are many characters in Farther Off from Heaven, it is that father who is the most vividly rendered, and the book’s hero. One suspects that Humphrey has, perhaps unknowingly, drawn him larger than life. His background is remarkable. He emerged from a dirt-poor sharecropper family, a mother whose every word dripped malice, a father who had been so much worn down by the endless effort to raise a crop in that withering heat, dusty soil, that he took no joy whatever in life. It was the kind of life that many people fall into merely because they know no other. But Clarence Humphrey was not to be trapped. The story of his youth is a story of escape.
He escaped at first by forays into the wild. His parents’ lives were so circumscribed that they had known only one sharecropper’s plot after another; to them the forest was a place of terrible danger, and they invested it with all their superstitions. But their son had a basic affinity for the forest, a talent as a hunter — even as a child he could lead men successfully in search of the increasingly scarce game — and he was well aware that he was safe in that world from the stultifying influence of his parents. Even into his adulthood, the forest remained his place of escape, and he guarded it jealously, often exhibiting in Clarksville its more fearsome trophies in order to keep less avid hunters out. The passages in which he passes his hunting skill on to his son are among the most striking in the book, especially one in which Clarence and his Negro hunting companion, Wiley, subdue a massive bull alligator. Clarence Humphrey as a hunter remained one of his son’s most vivid memories.
He escaped his background also by finding a vocation. Obviously, since he was forced to drop out of school early to help with the farming, his opportunities were limited, but he happened along at a crucial and, for him, ideal time in the social history of his country: he was growing into adulthood with the advent of the automobile. As he had a talent for hunting, so he had a natural affinity for driving and fixing cars. In fact, as the automobile became more and more important to his culture, he became something of a local hero. His garage was a gathering place for the young men of the town, and the sight of Clarence Humphrey riding down the street on the hood of a car, listening to the motor for some clue to its ailment, was a common, and, for his son, an exhilarating one. He was a short feisty man who drove too fast and drank too much, a wily and dangerous street fighter, a woodsman, perhaps a womanizer; he was William Humphrey’s father.
Humphrey’s mother Nell had a different past. She came from a close-knit family in which the parents were devoted to each other, almost oppressively so, and to their children. Throughout her youth she had been better educated than most children in her area, well cared for, almost pampered; she was somewhat the favored child. The Varley family was not pleased when she was courted by the hell-raising son of a sharecropper. But Nell Varley wanted to escape the country, and Clarence Humphrey had a vocation that would tie him to the town. She too had a wild streak that chafed at the oppressive domesticity in which she had been raised. Clarence Humphrey was an exciting and persuasive young man. They married and, to some extent, settled down, though in many ways they were never settled: Nell Humphrey had a roving streak that kept her moving from one rented house to another (she was never happier than on moving day, her son tells us, and he estimates that they lived in some fifteen homes in one five-year span), and Clarence Humphrey never really gave up the hard-driving life he had adopted as a young man; it was as if — even away from the sharecropper’s farm and his dispirited father — he were still afraid of being trapped.
William Humphrey grew up in the ambiance that these two parents created. He was born lame, with a condition that was corrected in his third year. As often happens, out of guilt (his mother believed she was responsible for his deformity because, during her pregnancy, she had slept on her side) they generally indulged him, a fact for which later in his life, Humphrey was bitterly to blame them. Like his father, he was a solitary, like his mother a rover. At school he was an immediate success, and, seeing a chance for furthering their social standing, his mother pushed him into school work, made him into something of a snob who, paradoxically, looked down on his parents for their own low standing and lack of formal schooling. He longed for a brother or sister (his mother, traumatized by his early lameness, had determined never to have another child). He wondered in vain at his family past; his grandparents might well have been fascinating — there was Indian blood on the Humphrey side, and Varley was a full-blooded Englishman — but were oddly uncommunicative. He nearly drowned in a childhood accident, spent one whole summer in bed after a serious injury to his knee. He lived through disastrous times for the economy of his country and his state. He brooded about his father’s drinking and what seemed to be his parents’ progressive estrangement. Yet through it all he inhabited an ordered world: Clarksville that he knew so well. Whatever else might happen, he had an identity in Clarksville, as Clarence Humphrey’s boy. In his thirteenth year that world was shattered.
Humphrey’s book is not uniformly fine. I found its structure awkward: he maintains as present time those fatal days in July, and tries to make fresh mention of them at the beginning of each chapter. I was annoyed by the way he hints at vital facts, like his early lameness, or near-drowning, but holds the reader in suspense about them; his narrative is memorable as it stands, and does not require suspense to sustain it. Some passages seem gratuitous, like an embarrassing few pages in which his father tries to explain sex to him, and in places his writing seems sentimental. Farther Off from Heaven is hardly a massive volume, but it might be a better one if it were slimmer still; one can’t help feeling that Humphrey included some material not central to the story he is telling. But his insights about that story — his sudden loss of a father — are striking and remarkable, and while a little of his writing is weak, most of it is clear-eyed and vivid.
After his father’s death, Humphrey and his mother were forced to move from Clarksville to Dallas, where she could find work. He lost much in the move, the town he knew so well, his identity in it, his proximity to the forest that he had learned to love. His return more than thirty years later was disillusioning, as he discovered facts in conflict with his childhood memories. But the paradise he had lost was not that place. It existed in his consciousness, in his memory of a time before a terrible event, and in Farther Off from Heaven he has left a moving record of it.