Gregory Orr
(Council Oak)
Gregory Orr was twelve years old when he shot and killed his younger brother Peter. It was an accident (he didn't know that Peter was right behind him) but it stained his life --- to the point that eight years later he contemplated taking his own life.

    I understood some things now, but also felt I understood nothing. I stood on the window ledge high above the street trying to get everything clear, trying to understand the emotional confusion inside me. But I couldn't.

Theirs was a family of guns --- and one of tragedy. When he was roughly the same age as Greg, his father shot and killed his best friend --- again in a freak accident. Several years before Greg's own accident, Christopher, another young family member had found a bottle of pills hidden in a drawer in his father's room, and died of an overdose.

In keeping with the tenor of the times, these deaths were never spoken of. One was expected to numbly go on. Everyone knew, and, presumably, everyone felt guilty --- but there was never any resolution.

There were some strange things going on. Orr's father, a physician, lived on methamphetamines --- and when it was time for Greg to go off to college, gave him a bottle of a thousand to take along with him. Later, when Greg volunteered to go off to Freedom Summer in Alabama, he gave him another thousand to make the journey easier.

Methamphetamines are powerful stuff. They were first invented fifty years ago to help people lose weight; they certainly make one active enough. They also can cause one to experience temporary schizophrenia. I started taking them years ago when I was living in Spain (they were sold there under the brand name of "Simpatina.")

With one or two for breakfast with my coffee, I would be flying; for me that meant writing. I wrote a whole novel in a matter of weeks. Later, when I got the manuscript to New York, I couldn't make any sense of it: there were lots of words, but they seemed to live their own independent lives, bore little relationship to each other.

When I came down after a session, I felt terrible, something that could be cured only by taking another Simpatina. Eating a few with my nightly bottle of wine sent me into a tailspin. I lost weight (I was already very thin) and couldn't stop pounding the typewriter. I also damn near went bats. Orr's description of his near catatonic experience when he came back from his Civil Rights summer sounded eerily familiar.

What Orr is best at is showing the devastating effect of the widely accepted drugs of the time. Too, he demonstrates the devastating effect of a chance death on a non-communicating family.

His father was small-town doctor eighteen hours a day, and survived on speed and absence of emotion. The few vacations were speed-vexed adventures. Once, the terrorized family spent the night crossing a gale-force wind-swept Long Island Sound. Too, there was a foolhardy adventure on a cliff, Greg totally inexperienced, hanging off in space, his zonked father trying to figure how to get him up the sheer face of the cliff.

§     §     §

Orr's invocation of the wholesale guilt of an accidental death is nigh about perfect. However, his philosophizing about it leaves something to be desired. He begins the volume with, "Do I dare to say my brother's death was a blessing?" Hardly. The curse of that memory, and his family's absurd way of treating tragedy damn near killed him --- and certainly badly damaged the life of his mother. Fortunately, he doesn't repeat this "death was a blessing" cant at the end of the book. This maybe-it-was-for-the-best blather has the feel of an editor's come-on:

    Listen Greg, we've got to start The Blessing with a bang. How about something that will grab the reader right off? How about calling it a "blessing?" You can spend some time defining "blessing," go into the roots of the word the Old English bletsian --- 'to sprinkle with blood.'"

This lame first chapter demeans a tragic event that changed a whole family structure, did damage to all of them, is the heart of the book.

Once when I was about the same age as Orr, I was playing with a .22 in front of our house. I had just shot a mockingbird, and impaled a squirrel on a nearby telephone pole --- watched him die writhing. I put the safety on and when my sister came out of the house I aimed the gun at her and said "I'm gonna shoot you." She was a no-nonsense thirteen years of age at the time; she shoved the muzzle away from her head saying "Get that goddamn thing away from me."

I aimed the gun at my father's Cadillac standing in the driveway and the bullet went through two side windows.

Forget the fact that I narrowly avoided a disaster that would have killed my sister and psychologically screwed me up, probably for my whole life. This near-accident changed our lives.

I never picked up a gun again, learned to hate them. I've been driven to proposing strange deeds: I once suggested to an anti-gun group that we sneak into the offices of the NRA in Washington, D. C. and stick fake bullet-hole decalcomanias over all their windows and mirrors and doors. Just to give them a taste of their own perverted messages.

But the effect on my family was more serious. Up to that day, my sister had viewed me as a royal pain-in-the-ass, mocking me, harassing me in ways that only a slightly older tom-boyish sister can. One of her favorite words was "sissy." She also called me "Karla," a disgusting feminine corruption of my name. However, from that day forward she never hassled me again, certainly never called me "sissy" or "Karla." She was, I guess, afraid that I would murder her in her bed if she ever started up with that shit again.

My father, who had been ambivalent about me before this --- sometimes loving, sometimes cold --- was no longer ambivalent. He turned his back on me. I never could figure out whether it was because I had almost nailed his daughter, or because I did nail his beloved car. We became strangers in the same house until he died five years later. Of heart-attack, I hasten to add.

For years afterwards I thought ... no I knew ... that I was a lucky son-of-a-bitch. I often reflected on how easily I could have turned my life upside down, ruined my days, and my psyche. I developed a new paranoiac awareness of chance, implanted by endless "What-if" thoughts.

--- Carlos Amantea

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