It can be difficult, even impossible, for us to see clearly the vital people in our lives while we are living through turbulent, critical moments. We only gain a true sense of things with enough time, distance, and contemplation. Suicide denies us the opportunity of knowing a loved one after we have resolved our issues, of looking back with the other and sharing insight and peace after we have settled down and learned the ropes of life. It leaves the survivors bereft and often burdened with crushing guilt. These are the difficult issues explored in artist and author Bill Whiting's debut book about his years living in Rochester in the late 1960's and early 1970's with his boyfriend, Danny Allen. It was the last thing he expected to find himself writing.
In the whirlwind of events after 28-year-old Danny Allen leaped from the Driving Park Bridge in 1974, Whiting relocated to Philadelphia, where he has lived and worked ever since. In February 2012, Whiting received an e-mail from a friend in Rochester, which requested more information about a tiny wonder of a painting that was selected for inclusion in the Memorial Art Gallery's current exhibition, "It Came From the Vault." The exhibit showcases seldom-shown works from the gallery's permanent collection. An intern at the museum was quite moved by the piece "Sunny Ducks," about which little was known, except that it was submitted to the annual Finger Lakes Exhibition and subsequently donated to the MAG in the name of the artist, Danny Allen, by one William T. Whiting.
Whiting, who is an artist himself, specializing in detailed dollhouses and gorgeous portraits, didn't immediately know that this innocent e-mail would result in a memoir. With long-buried feelings stirred up, he began blogging about his memories and faced emotional wave after wave of revelations as friends and family contributed to and challenged his memories, and eventually someone suggested that he turn the endeavor into a book. So Whiting set about the painful work of resurrecting Allen and his own younger self, telling the story of their challenges and adventures as poor young artists, their love and troubles, and the long, harrowing process of healing from the loss of a man he still considers to have been the love of his life.
By the time the current exhibition opened in March, the book was printed and a reunion was organized to include the old group of hippie artist friends and Allen's family members, many of whom contributed images of Allen's artworks as well as precious and troubling memories of the late artist to Whiting's book.
The volume itself contains multiple stories, and despite it being the specific experience of a specific teller, much of it will resonate with any adult who picks it up and digs in. On one level, "An Early Work" is a fascinating, semi-familiar reflection on life in Rochester during the tumultuous 1960's and 70's: the chaos of Corn Hill and of post-Sexual Revolution life, rife with experimental drug use, and the terror of a time when young people could be forced to kill and die in a war with a supposed purpose that grew less and less tangible as time marched forward.
The book also serves to celebrate the life and work of a talented yet troubled young man. It is Whiting's tribute to Allen; it is a story of the hard work of seeking closure the hard way — by openly revisiting the good and the bad and holding hands with what will never be known. It has the potential to provide new insight to those who felt the warmth of Allen's sun, but didn't spend as much time in close proximity to its scorching volatility as the author did.
On still another level, the book tells the story of youthful fumbling and the intensity of first, fragile love; of trying to force a workable life by piecing together the kind of helpless mutual brokenness that has the tendency to shred one another before we have gained the tools needed to smooth over our edges.
Some people deal with raw periods in life with self-destructive behavior. Inner gales of great joy and great despair chase one another without end, which is as bewildering to them as it is to behold. And as much love and support as they may have, such people are alone in it. They swing in great loops around their own lives like trapped celestial beings trying to gain the proper momentum to bust free. According to this book, Allen's young life was wracked by an inner instability that Whiting believes was likely exacerbated by recreational drugs, possibly used to dull a persistent pain that no one around him was equipped to identify properly, much less handle well. Whiting writes that Allen was surrounded by kindness and even adoration, but few detected the intensity of his problems, and as it goes, no one expected the devastating outcome.
Amid Whiting's meandering storytelling, which guides the reader back and forth through time as he recalls significant moments in his and Danny's shared years, many images of artwork and of Allen, Whiting, and their friends are strung like little gems that serve to illustrate precise points the author seeks to make. The group of artists around the couple comes to life, and Allen's work moves from burgeoning brilliance to extreme talent, to a strange dissolution of form as mysterious and layered as the collection of his poems found at the end of the book.
The story will hold special significance for those whose lives have been jolted by a loved one's suicide; whose lives are left with this lighting-shaped scar, the branches of which burrow inward anew each time we contemplate what was and what might have been. Fair warning: if you fit this description, the old wound will gain a low ache and persistent pulse even as the author comforts with his hard-won insight.