I’ve read one of Sparks’ novels–ehhhh–and listened to part of another on CD while fixing the library copy–strongly disliked it, but that was partly my reaction to Tom Bodett’s reading. (Bodett adopts a slightly higher, simpering voice for the female characters. Do a voice characterization or don’t, fella!) But this is nonfiction and sounded interesting. It is, although with a touch of the blandness I found in his fiction.
Nicholas convinced his brother to come on a package tour which breezed by most of the famous exotic destinations in the world: Mayan and Incan ruins, Easter Island, Ayers Rock, Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal, the rock cathedrals in Lalibela, Ethiopia (which I hadn’t heard of before–they do sound fascinating), the Hypogeum, and the Northern Lights. As they travel, he intersperses autobiography. (It’s not clear why Micah gets co-author credit, since everything is in Nicholas’ voice; presumably it’s just a nice gift of the royalties). And a very sad story it is–by their mid-thirties, they had already lost both parents and their only sister.
It’s not a particularly remarkable family–difficult father, loveable mother, yada yada–although the young Sparkses often say to each other “our parents are weird,” “our parents are crazy.” But what adolescent doesn’t think that? They were very poor and became very self-reliant (their mother in particular didn’t coddle, and pooh-poohed injuries), and that must somehow be related to the extreme determination of both brothers, but Sparks doesn’t really show us how or why. He tells us that he basically decided to become the best runner in his high school, and then in the state, and he did; then he told Micah how cool it was, and Micah also became a state-ranked runner. (Obviously they must be genetically gifted, but that’s not the only requirement). More strikingly, they both decided to be millionaires before they turned 30. Micah made it with time to spare, and Nicholas got a million-dollar offer for The Notebook two months before his 30th birthday.
The most remarkable feat Sparks describes is his determination to help his son, Ryan, who was diagnosed with autism. He basically worked with Ryan all day every day and trained him willy-nilly to learn language and interact with other people, and it actually worked. But through these amazing stories, there is something I can’t quite put my finger on–a lack of affect, a lack of insight–that prevents me from fully understanding or identifying with Sparks. There are photos interspersed throughout and I found myself staring at the faces of the young Sparkses, who are all impossibly good-looking (Nicholas in particular has adorable dimples, and their smiles all glisten with movie-star teeth), wondering what makes them tick. It’s like looking at a family of Barbie and Ken dolls.
There seems to me to be a lack of affect even on the trip. Sparks talks about how amazing the sights are, yet the two are avowedly bored by guides and museums, and often seem to annoy the tour operators with a lack of respect. An immature attitude comes across, reinforced by this account of one of the daredevil stunts they pulled as teenagers (in a neighborhood lavish with Christmas decorations):
Over the next two hours–thinking we were soooooo funny–we unscrewed every lightbulb and hauled them off. We’d filled six plastic garbage bags with lights, and the houses looked as if they’d been visited by the Grinch. I really and truly can’t explain why we did such things. It’s juvenile and embarassing, but I can’t help but think that if we had a chance to go back in time, we’d end up doing those things again.
Doesn’t that sound like he still thinks it was pretty funny?
Before the trip begins, Nicholas is a workaholic who’s getting depressed and losing touch with his family, and Micah has lost his religious faith (their background is very observant Catholic). Getting away together and reflecting on their family history helps, and when they return, both have found some peace of mind.
People often ask my brother and me how we continued to function–even flourish, by most standards–in the face of so much tragedy in our lives. I can’t answer that question, except to say that neither Micah nor I ever considered the alternative. We’d been raised to survive, to meet challenges, and to chase our dreams.
My parents may have been crazy, but whatever they did, it worked.
So it’s a nice ending, and the trip does sound spectacular–I just felt as though, instead of seeing someone else’s life clearly, as one does in the best memoirs, I was seeing a picture of that life through cloudy glass. And as I recall, that was my impression of the Sparks novel I read too–that it was a good imitation of a novel, but that it didn’t make me feel like the real thing. Maybe it’s just me…