A Mass for the Dead
When I Was Last on Cherry Street
William Gibson’s A Mass for the Dead is many things—it is an autobiography, a memorial to the author’s parents, a testament for his children, and a long musing on the continuity of generations. Primarily, however, it is, as the title suggests, a ritual; and, indeed, like the ecclesiastical form used as the structure of the book, it is a ritual meant to buttress the imagination against human impermanence and to fix our passing time into categories of literary observation. This desire to ritualize and thereby subdue mortality is, of course, fundamental to most autobiographical writing, but seldom has it been insisted on so tenaciously as in A Mass for the Dead. Almost every page pivots about death and memory until even the simplest recollections become reminders that they occur within lives which are dying away and which are held back from oblivion only by the author’s fierce recollective hold on them. And Gibson does hold on fiercely: poetry, biblical rhetoric, offertory pleas—these are only some of the items of literary ordinance which he brings to bear on his past and which make one feel that he has set out to write a complete existential missal of his own or, at the very least, a guidebook for all future meditation on human evanescence.
The burden of this effort is the author’s remembrance of his parents. Gibson’s own life, from childhood through his success as a writer for the stage, is touched upon only as it relates to the lives of his father and mother. This couple, whose lives by the author’s admission were ordinary and of small worldly consequence, becomes the still point on which their son bases memory and time, hoping to draw out of their very ordinariness something of regenerative value. The author’s father, George Gibson, was a good man, ebullient enough to be an Irishman, who worked most of his years in a New York bank’s mailroom to provide for his wife and children and help lift them out of the tenements into a two-family house in Queens. The Gibson mother kept house well, loved husband and children dutifully, and made her distinctive mark of character a compulsion for neatness. Existence for this family was neither easy nor hard. It was filled with lower-middleclass difficulties and pleasures which kept life moving at a comfortable rhythm, until the author, like all sons, mysteriously found himself estranged from and even contemptuous of the man and woman who produced him.
For this rupture and the attitude of superiority that accompanied it, Gibson feels atonement is necessary. Indeed A Mass for the Dead is an effort to cleave to and understand those he had once found alien. It is a journey past sensibility back to the common denominators of existence, an attempt to bind together through the memory of birth, love, and death Gibson’s intermediary position between past and future. The most moving parts of the book are those in which …