Our friendships are the freest relationships we have, relatively unconstrained compared to our ties with kin or colleagues. With our friends we give as much as our hearts tell us to in rides to the airport or shoulders to cry on, and if we fall short, society doesn’t reproach us. When friends drift apart, it’s sad, but no one finds it unnatural. Maybe that’s why friendship, unlike kinship, has rarely been a major theme for memoirists: A connection so fundamentally optional doesn’t provide the same ambivalence and tension you get with alcoholic parents, narcissistic spouses, or resentful bosses. If your friend abuses you or your trust, you can just walk away.
Yet almost everybody has had at least one precious, miraculous friendship, a bond that has saved your life or shown you a whole new way to live it. Those relationships don’t make for much of a story, though, until you lose them, which is why so many of the most celebrated recent memoirs of friendship are (spoiler alert!) about people who have died: Abraham Verghese’s The Tennis Partner, Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty, Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home, and Patti Smith’s Just Kids, for example. Illness, addiction, and loss supply the friction that generates narrative energy and gives a writer the occasion to articulate something that seldom gets fully said: just how much our friends mean to us.
Two new memoirs, Alex Abramovich’s Bullies: A Friendship and Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl accept this challenge, and both memoirists face a particularly daunting task because in each case the friend in question is not only alive but the sort of person who’s reluctant to express vulnerability or any tender emotion at all. One way to handle this is to nudge the reader to fill in the blanks; that path is full of pitfalls. Another is to furnish the empty spaces yourself, also risky but potentially so much more revelatory.
Bullies recounts what happened when Abramovich, a freelance writer, reconnected with Trevor Latham, who, as he saw it, had picked on him from fourth through sixth grade in a Long Island suburb. Latham, Abramovich learns, went on to form a motorcycle club in Oakland, California, called the East Bay Rats. The two men reconnect. GQ magazine gives Abramovich an assignment to write about it and sends him cross-country, where he discovers, to his surprise, that the way Latham remembers it, Abramovich bullied him.
The more Abramovich hangs out with the Rats, recording their exploits and trials—from setting a piano afire on the meridian of Oakland’s grungy San Pablo Avenue to mourning a beloved brother who wiped out on an overpass under suspicious circumstances—the more he drifts from observer to participant. A serious injury to his hand during his first driving lesson means he never gets a motorcycle of his own, but Abramovich becomes “a sort of unofficial historian-in-residence” for the club. A few chapters into Bullies, and the writer has moved to Oakland with his girlfriend and both have become regulars at the Rats’ clubhouse, where they spar and train with the motley crew of locals who turn up for the Rats’ main source of income and entertainment: fight parties.
Bullies is expertly written in the style of the magazine feature that spawned it. Abramovich sets out a collection of vivid scenes, pithy bits of local history and a lot of bar-stool racounteuring, all of it arranged like tarot cards on a table: not touching but clearly related in ways you need to figure out for yourself. Abramovich attends the murder trial of an assassin who worked for a cult, and he haunts the Occupy Oakland protests until the group gets ousted by the cops. An excommunicated member of the Rats explains that “the laws of my moral code supersede the laws of the United States government.” Visits to the library tell Abramovich that the history of Oakland is a long saga of one person muscling another person out of the picture. He has landed, he implies, in the kingdom of bullies.
What the book doesn’t supply, however, is a deeper or richer portrait of Latham (or Abramovich’s relationship with him) than you get in the first few chapters. Abramovich is struck when he invites Latham to a party with his New York friends and the biker reveals his charming side, talking to everyone, “genuinely curious” and a little bit knowledgeable on every topic. He gets angry when Latham brings him along on a drive to look at a bus shelter where Latham’s girlfriend got mugged, then destroys the structure, implicating Abramovich in the vandalism. The two men target-shoot together, and Latham hangs out in the Occupy Oakland encampment while explaining, “I don’t care about the politics. I’m only here for the violence.” Yet Latham remains something of a cipher, and not just because Latham himself is emotionally reticent. Abramovich is, too, and a good memoirist’s best tool for understanding the mystery of other people’s feelings is, perhaps ironically, his own.
Perhaps Abramovich’s hands-off policy when it comes to interpreting or synthesizing the hodgepodge of material he funnels into Bullies is a high-minded gambit to make the reader work, and perhaps it’s a bait-and-switch gambit designed to administer a dose of politics to a readership who showed up looking for a personal story. Or it could be part of the tradition—embodied by writers like Hemingway and Raymond Carver—of presenting the suffering of working-class men as a tragic lacuna, a pain made even more piercing by their stoic refusal to speak of it. But instead of burrowing under this facade, Abramovich gets sucked into the unreflective ethos of the Rats, whose only stunted avenue for understanding and expression is their fists. Of the Rats’ initiation process—a collective beat down of the new guy—Latham says, “When else are your friends going to pay so much attention to you?”
Compared to the stoniness of Bullies, Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is a riot, a profusion, a veritable jungle of ideas and sensations. She is a professor of geobiology at the University of Hawaii, and Lab Girl is in general an account of her life as a scientist. The book’s first chapter sports a winning paean to her lab: “a place where I move. I stand, walk, sit, fetch, carry, climb, and crawl. My lab is a place where it’s just as well that I can’t sleep, because there are so many things to do in the world besides that.” Chapters on the life cycle of plants, her specialty, alternate with chapters describing episodes from Jahren’s life as she copes with early obstacles or produces her first original experimental result. At 25, she makes a small discovery, entirely on her own, and thinks, “I now knew something for certain that only an hour ago had been an absolute unknown ... I was the only person in an infinite exploding universe who knew that this powder was made of opal. In a wide, wide world, full of unimaginable numbers of people, I was—in addition to being small and insufficient—special.”
This revelation makes Jahren cry, partly because it is so personally momentous and partly because she believes it brings “the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women I had ever known.” That wasn’t quite true; Jahren did eventually become a wife and mother. But Lab Girl is less concerned with her family life than it is with celebrating the unanticipated rewards of her idiosyncrasies. Not least of these is Jahren’s friendship with Bill, her scientific partner of over 20 years. A pronounced oddball, a seeker of knowledge, and a trader of sardonic wisecracks, Bill is never happier than when on the job, savoring the complexities of soil layers or scavenging secondhand equipment for the three laboratories the two of them have built together.
Like most experimental scientists, Jahren funds her studies by requesting grants from federal agencies; out of the monies she receives, she must pay for equipment, materials and staff—i.e., Bill, who has followed her from Berkeley to Atlanta to Baltimore and finally to Hawaii. Although she considers him one of the best scientists she knows, she often can’t pay him much. She took the position in Hawaii in large part because the university guaranteed some money, though not enough, to Bill. For a while, when they worked in Atlanta, he lived in a van. Bill also has an oblique approach to expressing affection that jibes perfectly with what Jahren thinks of as her own Scandinavian reticence. (She grew up in Minnesota.) On the night he got his bachelor’s degree and she got her doctorate, they decided to celebrate by repairing to the lab and blowing glass tubes full of pure carbon dioxide into the early morning.
When the pressure of the job gets to her, Jahren—who suffers from anxiety and has manic depression—develops a bad habit of chewing the skin off her knuckles. Observing this during a cigarette break, Bill remarks, “We used to a have a dog that chewed her paws.” “I know it’s gross,” Jahren replies, feeling ashamed. “No,” Bill says, “she was a great dog. We didn’t give a damn. When you have a dog that good, you let it do whatever it wants.”
That exchange just about captures the ramshackle poetry of this friendship, whose loyalty is so deep and abiding that it forges a great love story in spite of the utter absence of erotic interest in either party. Unlike many love affairs, though, this relationship isn’t about itself. Its strength springs from the partners’ shared passion for their vocation, with all its tedium and frustration and uncertainty and wonder. Bill is Jahren’s unfailing, unfussy sidekick. Together they eat junk food, wrangle unreliable graduate students, and orchestrate research field trips in vehicles so overloaded with equipment that the group resembles a party of scientific Beverly Hillbillies.
After Bill’s father dies and he slips into a funk, Jahren coaxes him into joining her on a trip to Ireland where they can hike through a botanist’s paradise, looking for mysteries to solve. When Bill remarks that having a parent die makes you realize how alone in the world you are, Jahren freezes, wanting to tell him “that he would never be hungry or cold or motherless while I still drew breath ... That no matter what our future held, my first task would always be to kick a hole in the world and make a space for him where he could safely be his eccentric self.” She has proven this again and again, but she doesn’t know how to say it out loud.
Then she notices that the moss on the hillside where they’re standing retains an impressive amount of water. “ ‘Do you have any 25-milliliter vials with you?’ I asked. ‘Only three hundred,’ he answered.” And you know they’re going to be just fine.
Bullies: A Friendship by Alex Abramovich. Henry Holt.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. Knopf.
See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.