Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
The year is 1917. Miller Park and Hal Pierce are best friends. They were born on the same day, and both aspire to be writers: Miller a novelist, Hal a poet. Miller is a bit of a man of action while Hal is more introspective, yet their bond is strong. One critical difference, though, is that Miller is straight, but Hal is gay, although only he knows this.
This Cleaving and This Burning follows the two from their last year of high school until their late twenties. After their graduation, they part paths, meeting together only seldom over the next eight years. Miller joins the American Expeditionary Forces and goes off to fight in France. Hal moves to New York. One powerful experience still binds them. On a camping trip that year, they are nearly killed by a forest fire, with Hal saving them both after Miller sprains his ankle. At Miller’s instruction, Hal digs a trench where they are able to lie protected as the fire sweeps by them. When Miller passes out from his pain, Hal, fearing they will not survive, plants a kiss on Miller’s mouth. Later, fearful of Miller’s reaction, Hal keeps this memory to himself.
In France, Miller, now a US Marine, is made leader of a small squad of five men. Their first engagement is to take Hill 142, part of the infamous Battle of Belleau Wood. The attack is disastrous. German machine gunfire takes a terrible toll. One by one Miller’s men are all killed, but he survives and earns a medal. Wounded, he is sent back to the US. He carries the nightmarish memories with him, except for his last, solo push to the top of the hill after the death of the last of his squad. Of that, he has no recollection.
The story moves rapidly from that point on, showing Hal’s struggles to become a poet, while Miller achieves quick success, first with newspaper stories about the war, later as a novelist. Hal is sexually promiscuous in bohemian New York City, while Miller finds lasting love with a woman stunt pilot in St. Louis. Author J.A. Wainwright is a cerebral writer, and much of the narrative relates what is going on in Miller’s and Hal’s minds. The nature of love in its many forms is a main theme, as is the purpose and process of writing. Hal’s short poems (Wainwright’s one assumes) are scattered through the narrative as he tries to figure out how to write an epic poem about America. Most of Miller’s work is mostly mentioned in summary descriptions, but like Hal, he is struggling to write a more personal, important work, in his case a novel about the war.
Besides the themes of love and creativity, Wainwright wrestles with the idea of memory. Both Hal and Miller are haunted by events in the past and the reliability and meaning of their recollections of them. Wainwright ably portrays the long shadow that a long-ago event can cast onto the present.
Although the narrative follows both men, it is Hal whose struggles seem more vivid for the greater part of the book. Perhaps it is because of the poems, perhaps it is because his internal torment comes across as more urgent, at least initially. Insightful moments and emotional scenes involving each hit their mark, and the reader feels drawn to the passions of both for life and literature. And Miller’s creative agony comes across in the end.
This Cleaving and This Burning has been described as inspired by the lives of Ernest Hemingway and the poet Hart Crane, and, sure enough, Wainwright has Miller and Hal grow up in Oak Park, Illinois, where Hemingway was raised. Crane, however, was from near Cleveland, Ohio. There seems to be no evidence they ever met. Miller is definitely a Hemingway type, who loves the outdoors and likes to be physically active. And Hal certainly reflects the poetic ambition of Crane. But beyond that, the only other similarity is that they both committed suicide.
Much of this book is compelling, and the reader urges each character on to achieve his artistic goals and material success. Wainwright is a very insightful writer, though he often falls into the habit of just stating things, rather than let his characters reveal themselves through dialogue and behavior. He also isn’t very clear about the passage of time, which is important in a book like this where two characters are living apart contemporaneously. Wainwright’s prose describing the writing process can verge on the academic but luckily doesn’t cross the line into being pedantic. Lastly, perhaps owing to his preference to explore the thoughts of his two main characters, he is light on visual description, and this weakens the narrative in parts. The scenes in the forest fire and the battle would have benefited from more visual detail.
There are a few slip-ups along the way. The “Lincoln Brigade” was the American force in the Spanish Civil War, not the US Civil War. Only the most Anglophile of Americans have ever heard the words “dross” and “plonk” (this reviewer is an American). There is no Embarcadero in New York City. And there are three references to “Boxing Day,” a term not used in the US at all. Similarly, a slug (you, know, those slimy things) is on Miller’s hand on page 79 but on his Marine comrade Munson’s hand on page 264. An error of Miller’s memory? It doesn’t appear so. But these are all minor.
Despite these issues, the narrative remains compelling, so much so in fact that the reader wants to push on to the end. Not all readers will like the ending, however. It comes on rather fast and is perhaps a little too pat. But there is no denying its emotional power.
This Cleaving and This Burning is published by Guernica Editions.