This memoir is an absorbing and unsparing account by Marc Nieson of his time in a rural Iowa, living alone in a former one-room schoolhouse, during which he comes to terms with ending a relationship with a woman who has been the love of his life. It is a meditation on how the past informs the present, and how the present, as a work-in-progress, helps determine the future.
A native New Yorker, Nieson arrived in the Midwest in the early 1990s to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He was not, as is sometimes the case, a recent undergraduate, striding confidently into an MFA. Rather, he was a man in his thirties with a considerable amount of experience behind him. Experience that he needed to figure out—or, failing that, flee.
Greatly marked by a long-term love affair with another New Yorker named Sybil, with whom he’d maintained a long-distance relationship while living and working in Italy, Nieson comes to Iowa with few expectations beyond creating a personal distance from his past. He decides to bale out of his old life and, in effect, he parachutes into a cornfield.
Schoolhouse is organized into fifteen chapters, with titles like “Orientation,” “Geography,” “Spelling” and “History,” leading up to “Commencement.” Although roughly chronological, tracking the seasons and the author’s experience in Iowa, the chapters move freely through time and space, also lingering on episodes in New York and Venice.
As a personal aside, I will admit some trepidation about this subject. I grew up on an Iowa farm and went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—though I did not overlap with Nieson—and during my time there, the program was overwhelmingly a place for city people, often from the coasts. To be local or “rural” was exotic. Maybe this sounds defensive, but I eavesdropped on many conversations and later read published accounts by writers about their “Iowa experience”—it has become a sort of sub-genre, and fodder for shows like Girls—describing the hardship of being in a place with few decent restaurants or museums, where the locals are quaint and/or clueless. It’s rough out there, in the sticks.
Nieson, fortunately, avoids such clichés. There is nothing patronizing in his account and it’s in fact endearing to see how open he is to his new environment. He turns his schoolhouse into a kind of research station, doggedly teaching himself about the landscape and fauna. He’s a pack rat who scavenges feathers and collects wasps’ abandoned nests. “I told myself I wasn’t building a collection,” he remarks, “but rather a vocabulary.” With the help of a library book, he eagerly inspects animal scat, comparing the feces of deer, coyote and wild turkey. His solitary habits lead a friend to drive out in the dead of winter to make sure he hadn’t frozen to death in the woods.
Some of the most moving descriptions appear late in the book, when he makes a rushed trip back to Venice to see a dying friend. This experience allows him to make sense of his own evasions in coming out to Iowa. Nieson observes, “Someone once told me that School and Life were different; in school they give you the lessons before the test, in life it’s the other way around.”
This statement neatly sums up the writer’s sensibility. Schoolhouse is an honest and affecting memoir which confronts the perplexities of life.