Dogfish Memory: A Memoir

by Joseph A. Dane
(The Countryman Press: 254 pp., $23.95)

Joseph Dane probably didn’t know that he was injecting valuable life-blood into the languishing memoir form when he wrote this. He was just trying to come to some kind of peace with the fog of memory; to stake a defiant pose against death and faithlessness and see if he could hold it. Even as he wrote this the readers of the world grew more weary of the form; more skeptical. Everyone with a challenge or a fond memory felt emboldened to fake up a narrative; pretend they actually understood their lives (often from the ripe old vantage point of twenty-five). And here comes Joseph Dane, angry, uncertain, trying (with no sense of heroicism, no nobility, just abject irritation), to either sweep his life clean of half-truths or embrace, once and for all, the ambiguity of hindsight.

Maine, as those who have tasted enough of it well know, becomes a state of mind, a place to go to when the current world is not living up. So Dane, whose forbears were summer people, swanning around grand “cottages” on lawns carved down to the sea in places like Kennebunkport, Swan’s Island and Prouts Neck, is wary of “playing Maine.” Like his father, whom he chides for a lifelong desire to be a “regular guy,” Dane longs for the real thing, the real life, free of metaphor, free of narrative, free of human will exerted over sensual memories: sea moss, sand fleas, the smell of “wood paneling and mold and beach roses and salt water,” (p43) “the curve of her cheek like the curve of the hull itself.” (p9)

All of us want to back to a time before the caking-on began. We believe there was a time when we felt things ourselves, not what others told us or wanted us to feel. To do this, to travel back, Dane has to dredge up the good with the bad; he has to pass through the self-hatred, the sneering, doubting, self-loathing and the self-aggrandizement and the romantic illusions, the playing at Maine.

He has to tell us the love story, grudgingly, as if we were pulling it out of him. Linda Jane, in hindsight. Linda Jane willed into the present by a man with a pen. Linda Jane born and raised in Maine. The two of them in their twenties (how glorious!) sailing and swimming and fishing and driving across the country. Linda Jane married to another man. Linda Jane divorced, now with an alcoholic farmer in Nebraska. Joseph Dane in his lifelong affair with Linda Jane. Linda Jane dead. He’s mad about it, too. Mad about all the manipulation and drama, decades of it. He’s hard on women, lovely in their twenties and thirties, who get old and fat and depressed. He’s hurt and he’s mad and he writes like a big angry animal. He writes about all the last times. This narrative thread is way too broken to craft into the kind of story you might tell a friend. There’s only us, readers.

Dane writes about sailing, trying hard not to make it sound too romantic but that’s hard. Deer Island, Boon Island, Ogunquit, Cape Neddick; it’s almost impossible not to evoke the finest feelings around these names, these coves and ports. He writes about weather (“weather cannot cheat you; it cannot laugh at you, nor can it play tricks on you or do any of the things that our conventional metaphors make it seem to do.” P63) He writes about his friend who died and wanted to die after returning from Vietnam. And the stories of his youth—the one about the soldier who fell in water full of dogfish and begged his mates to shoot him while the dogfish ate his legs.

I have never seen a better illustration of how, spider-like and blind, we weave our own lives, one tier to the next. I have never seen a memoir so aggressively honest. He wanted to create something true out of these bits of failure (and some glorious moments) and he has done that. What more could he want—“the halfday sail to Rockland, where Linda Jane inevitably waits with her exquisite provisionings”? (p217) 

“There will be no more worrying about weather conditions, or failed equipment, or missed appointments. This sense of ease is not about, say, love of the boat or the water or the being alone, but about freedom from the pressure of the forced enjoyment of the season.” (p245)