I ONCE HEARD the noted memoirist Kim Barnes claim that for a life to be dramatically whole, it must contain an experience one can look back on and say, That is where my life changed. There was before. There is after. And always there is that.
For women, she continued, this experience was and often still is pregnancy, birth, and motherhood — or maybe the refusal of or thwarted desire for pregnancy, birth, and motherhood. But men — and here she looked at us twentysomething, long-haired, too-sensitive-by-half, creative-nonfiction writers dotting the audience — are dramatically adrift. We no longer have war, that ancient measure. Men coming of age in the last twenty or so years, she concluded, no longer know who they are in this world.
Matthew Davis’s first memoir, When Things Get Dark, which chronicles Davis’s time teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer in central Mongolia, can absolutely be understood as an attempt to narrate that demanding, dramatic, singular experience around which everything in a young man’s life changes. Consider the setup: at just twenty-three, Davis finds himself pouring vodka to the gods, living in a ger shadowed by the stone face of Bulgan Mountain, and watching the dark and cold of the long Mongolian winter each day eat more and more of the light.
Yet even for these striking circumstances, a kind of dramatic drifty-ness plagues this memoir, as we never know who Davis really is, or rather, for their sheer multiplicity, we never know which of Davis’s many identities is most important: Davis is at times a student, teacher, friend, drinker, thinker, smoker, traveler, neighbor, writer, hiker, flirt and lover, confidant and gossip, biological son and surrogate son, guileless American Midwesterner and disillusioned Mongolian. Though each of these identities is no doubt important to the very real bundle of contradictions that is Matthew Davis, there are simply far too many possible selves here for a coherent memoir. And, as we wonder who Davis really is, we then question what, if anything, is truly important in the dramatic arc of the narrative.
Consequently, about halfway through I’d lost all interest in Davis’s personal story. Not even Davis’s drunken fistfight with a van full of Mongolian toughs proves enough to deliver the dramatic movement. Yet, I think I can still claim that this memoir is worthwhile.
Davis informs us in the beginning of the book that Mongolians use the same word for both story and history: tuukh. Taking this lingual quirk as license, Davis then splices chapters primarily concerned with Mongolian history into the scope of his personal experience. Often built around side trips Davis takes to the countryside and other places of note in Mongolia, these sections are truly fascinating; they contrast Mongolia’s storied past and rapidly changing present circumstances and are full of sharp observations and clear connections. The writing here is heightened as well; Davis moves into present tense, crafting affecting scenes and shaping each moment in engaging detail. These chapters work so well because in the midst of these sojourns Davis finally knows who he is: an observer, a simple stranger in an ancient, changing, sad, and handsome land.
If such wisdom and self-knowledge filled the rest of the book, we’d have a truly great memoir. As it is, pick up When Things Get Dark and you’ll learn a bit about Mongolia.