David Shields’s paragraph in How Literature Saved My Life about Amy Fusselman’s first book and his blurb on the back of her most recent book, Savage Park, use essentially the same language.
The book fluctuates wildly and unpredictably from Fusselman’s attempt to get pregnant through artificial means, her conversations with her dying father, and his WWII diary entries. I don’t know what the next paragraph will be, where Fusselman is going, until – in the final few paragraphs – she lands on the gossamer-thin difference between life and death, which is where she’s been focused all along, if I could only have seen it.
I yield to no one in my admiration for Amy Fusselman’s work. Her new book, Savage Park, further explores with astonishing power, eloquence, precision, and acid humor her obsessive, necessary theme: the gossamer-thin separation between life and death.
The Venn diagram of people who (a) noticed this similarity and (b) devoted more than a second’s thought to it is small and may only include me.
My initial attempts at describing Savage Park to others often failed because they sounded like the plot of a horror movie: “The author takes her family to visit a friend in Japan, and the friend takes them to increasingly unsafe playgrounds, until finally they reach a playground that they nickname ‘Savage Park.’” When this description didn’t elicit an enthusiastic promise to read the book, I’d crib from David Shields (up to but not including the phrase “gossamer-thin”) and press upon my friends, my potential co-readers, all of whom are parents, that the book is about how we’re imposing our fears on our children rather than letting them create their own fears. Here’s where an example might be useful.
My wife’s friend from medical school, her husband, and their two children (8 and 6) flew in for a short New York City vacation. We live in the suburbs, but we borrowed my brother’s 8-seat mini-van to shuttle their family and ours, which includes my almost-4-year-old daughter and 9-month-old son, into Manhattan for three straight days. On the last day, we walked and shopped up Fifth Avenue on our way to the real destination, Central Park. When we arrived at The Park, we realized that we’d forgotten the bag of blankets, Frisbees, beach balls, and kites intended to amuse the kids. We told them they’d “have to run around or go play on the rocks.”
My wife and her friend’s husband left to buy the children snacks. Her friend sat on the grass, while I practiced walking with my infant son on the Central Park lawns that provided soft landing spots for his frequent spills. Bent over and holding my son by both his hands, I tried to keep an eye on my daughter as she scrambled up a hill-sized boulder, struggling to keep up with her new, older friends. She slipped for a moment before figuring out that her bare knees provided good traction against the rocks. She ambled up to the top, wiped away some dirt from her knees, and waved at me. I fought off the urge to cry out, “Be careful!” I would have been more comfortable handing off my son to my wife’s friend and standing on top of the rocks with my daughter. But I’d just finished reading Savage Park and was deliberately trying to put my own comfort aside.
I wondered how I’d explain an injury. I pictured myself in a police station talking to a cop or, in the least, explaining a bloody arm or leg to my wife when she returned with the snacks: “I just finished reading Savage Park, and the author makes the case that Americans are over-obsessed with safety, at the cost of our kids’ ability to have fun. Helping her climb those rocks, even just standing next to her and giving her the impression that I was there as a safety net, seemed like the wrong parenting choice at that moment.” I could picture the skeptical eyes of the police officer or my wife. I’d need to bring my explanation to a strong conclusion. “And this all stems from our fear of death.”
I walked my son back to the area where my wife’s friend was sitting, and we wordlessly watched our kids slide down one rock and make their way up another. My wife’s friend must have picked up on my anxiety, because unprompted she said that her 8-year-old son was “really good at climbing,” so good that he’d make sure neither of the younger ones would fall. I replied that I was working on my parenting philosophy to allow more falls. I recited, almost verbatim, the hypothetical confession I’d made to the police offer/wife just moments earlier. My wife’s friend asked for clarification. “You mean your own death or your children’s deaths?” “Just death in general,” I answered, as if there should be no distinction. “But why is it a bad thing to worry about your children dying?” she asked quickly, like a reflex. She bit her lip and looked down at the grass, as if she were embarrassed about what she’d just asked. And because I never know when to be silent, I said, “I think the point is that we can’t control their lives or their deaths.” And because I’m a bad friend, I said those words in baby talk, addressing my son’s drooling face rather than my wife’s friend sitting beside me.
The day before, we’d walked the High Line, a mile-and-a-half park in the Meatpacking District built on an elevated section of an abandoned New York City railroad line. In a shaded area created by an underpass, the Friends of the High Line committee had created a pop-up play space with arts-and-crafts activities for smaller children and a build-it-yourself pile of wheels, ropes, pulleys and levers for older children. Savage Park was so fresh in my brain that I was in that mindset I sometimes get when I’m obsessed with a book, in which I presume everyone around me has read it and agrees with my analysis. Here was New York City’s attempt at free and creative play, with ropes and hunks of wood and approving parents standing on the sideline. The space was too sanitary, though. The pulleys and levers looked as if they’d just been pulled out of their plastic packaging. I surmised that someone on the Friends of the High Line committee had read Savage Park and been inspired to try for something like Hanegi Playpark (the actual name of “Savage Park”) in the Meatpacking District. And I judged that this well-intentioned committee member had sort of understood the book but also had sort of missed its entire point, because it’s not my place or the Friends of the High Line committee’s place to tell our kids how to have fun.
Couched among the narrative about and analysis of Japanese playgrounds, Fusselman recounts her experiences in a class with Philippe Petit, the high wire artist best known for his 1974 walk between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers (memorialized in the documentary Man on Wire). She claims that she had no desire to learn about wire walking and instead “was there to learn about space from someone who clearly has a genius’s understanding of it.” The class doesn’t provide the tutorial on space she’d expected but does offer a chance to dismiss her fear of dying. At the end of the first class, Petit takes each student on a chaperoned walk across a wire, and Fusselman decides, “Death will not get me here, in this particular place…. There, I’m done. I’m done thinking about or even paying attention to whatever else it is that will happen.”
Just before starting this chaperoned walk, Petit turns around and asks his student, “Shall we go?” Fusselman’s analysis of this question, for me, captures the essence of Savage Park (so much so that I wondered if the book’s original title was Shall We Go?):
And in this asking, he reminded us that after all he had done to make this walk possible (which was to say, pretty much everything) we still held tremendous power in it, because, despite the magnitude of his efforts in relation to our own, it was possible for the two of us to do this action together only if each one of us, individually, first did something alone that was internal, and invisible, and this was agree to fly with him with the understanding that we could do this – the impossible – only because we had surrendered to him in a way that was not meek and resentful but assertive and glad.
The “Shall we go?” question comes up at other times in the book (e.g. upon leaving a Japanese love hotel with her husband), and its appearance signals a message about community and the need for shared decision making. My wife’s friend and I both had to let our kids play on the rocks unattended, and if American children are to have anything remotely resembling a Savage Park experience, American parents will need to loosen up as a collective.
I take the Metro North Hudson Line train into the city each workday. This route has had two fatal accidents in the last two years. Perhaps that’s why the signs on the platform display the date and an exhortation to “HAVE A SAFE DAY.” After the second accident, my wife suggested that I stop sitting in the train’s first car, because all of the fatalities in both accidents were first car passengers. The first car is also known as the quiet car – no conversations, no phone calls, no music so loud it still seeps out of headphones. The first car is the best car to get work done. My 20 minutes on the train every morning and evening is the time I’ve granted myself to write. I consider this time sacred and have deliberately missed express trains for more time to write on the local route. I continued to sit in the first car until my wife joined me one morning on the commute (she usually takes a later train than mine) and expressed disbelief that I’d still sit in the “death car.” She guilted me with images of our children growing up fatherless.
After that morning, I moved back into the second car, although sometimes I’d forget about the promise I’d made her and, out of sheer routine, take the first car. Within a few seconds, I’d recognize the bliss of the quiet car and get a small thrill from my illicit behavior. It was almost as if I was cheating on my wife. Soon enough, I was riding the first car again, consciously, willingly, and even in view of my wife, who shook her head but eventually gave up her protests. Once, I even grabbed her hand and tried to drag her onto the first car with me. “Come on, sit next to me,” I pleaded as the doors opened. By which I meant, “Shall we go?”
Andrew Bomback is a physician and writer in New York. His essays have recently appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Ohio Edit, Essay Daily, Human Parts, The Harlequin, River Teeth, and Hobart.