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Brilliantly Written and a Fascinating Ride!
“Invisible Driving” is a personal memoir that reads like fiction, seducing the reader with gripping drama, humor, anguish, love, sex, drugs and a jazzy rendition of mental illness. But don’t let that fool you. Alistair McHarg’s book is a major contribution to the memoir genre in general, and to writing on mental illness, in particular.
The book opens with humor that made me laugh aloud (books never do that for me) and it ends with a sublimely peaceful trip to the middle road of sanity– an amazing accomplishment after the roller coaster ride he takes you on throughout the book. This is one of the most powerful mental illness memoirs I have ever read, and I have read many because I have written one myself.
Alistair McHarg’s memoir is on such a lofty level of creativity, description and sheer writing ability that it leaves memoirs by Kay Jamison, John McManamy and William Styron on dusty shelves below his. Not one of them comes close to his portrayal of Bipolar Disorder.
McHarg’s writing is very well-crafted. He is a master of metaphor and comparisons. His descriptions are so vivid as to stop you dead in your tracks to admire the writing itself, despite the desire to race ahead because the story is so riveting, one can’t wait to find out what will happen next. (I had to read the book through once for the story and then go back to admire the writing.) He paints a visual picture, complete with sound track, and, indeed, this memoir could make a memorable film.
The words he comes up with that have no established meaning but are mood-activated, punctuate the narrative with pizzazz and are never tiresome. The humor is a cross between Robin Williams and the Marx Brothers but is delivered with the auspicious feeling of a mind racing out of control with breathtaking speed. That is how the book starts out. It quickly proceeds to the seriousness of it all. The juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy is extremely effective. The descriptions are spot-on. My all-time favorite is his description of mental hospital inmates as “aristocrats of the soul.” McHarg is a poet at heart and the heart of this story comes out as poetry.
McHarg tells you what it is really like to think as someone with Bipolar Disorder. He shares his thoughts and motives with a generous honesty that is stunning and a clarity that is crystal clear. I can avow to the accuracy of this portrayal because I am Bipolar myself. But this book is not just for people “on the back of the bus,” as McHarg describes the mentally ill in one of his postings on his blog. This memoir is for everyone! The drama has mass appeal as all good drama does. It is a page-turner, make no mistake about it. And I would venture to say should be required reading for all brands of therapists.
Particularly poignant is the role his love for his daughter plays in this book, and, in his life. We, and I mean by “we” in this context, those of us with mental illness, need an added incentive to work towards in our journey to sanity. For me, it was to find real love. For McHarg, it was to be there for his daughter who, from the very beginning shows a love for her father that is totally touching, as is his for her. And that is what it is all about in the end, for all of us, mentally ill or not. We all have our journeys but some are more treacherous than others.
“Invisible Driving” offers a message of hope to the road-weary traveler. Take his tour. It will not disappoint!
E. Stockdale Wolfe
To see the original review and purchase Invisible Driving click HERE
I learned how to read and perform choral music a cappella in the damp, chilly basement of St. Martin in the Fields, a swank Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia. Without flogging an ailing nag let’s just say that St. Martins is adjacent to the grass tennis courts of The Philadelphia Cricket Club about which, the less said…Ironically, I returned to St. Martins decades later for an AA meeting, indeed, many of “the rooms” are located in the glamourless confines of church basements. But, as ever, I am ahead of myself.
The Choir Master was an intense, closeted homosexual who lived at home with his mother and brother, a countertenor. (His brother’s solos caused us discomfort and wonder.) Mr. Wilkinson was a driven, obsessive perfectionist; he whipped us into shape mercilessly, like a man whipping a rented mule. Because this was a boy’s choir, featuring the pristine, clear sound of male voices not yet cracked by the oncoming deluge of what is laughingly referred to as adulthood, we were all roughly the same age, in the 8-12 bracket. The congregation was accustomed to getting what it wanted and it wanted high-end music. Wilkinson delivered.
We practiced 3 evenings weekly and before service on Sunday. We were paid regularly, in pay envelopes, and got perks like presents and stints at summer camp. In other words, even though we were wisenheimer punks our approach to the music was dispassionately professional – we were not merely tight, we were kettledrum tight.
In that basement I learned music, performance, and Christmas. Ever since those days, really good authentic Christmas music has been my favorite part of the season, for many years it was the only part I could stomach.
The following excerpt from INVISIBLE DRIVING recounts my most memorable Christmas concert ever; I played 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. While in the midst of a manic flight, I “played” 30th Street Station – which is to say – I “played” 30th Street Station.
I felt like walking so I parked my car in the lot next to 30th Street Station. Thirtieth Street Station is an enormous Greek style train station that stands next to an elaborate yard handling freight trains, local trains, and long distance passenger trains. It’s a conduit for all North/South train travel. The station recalls a day when great power was based on rail transportation, before cars took over. But I’m not here to talk about what the station can recall, I’m talking about what I recall. It’s a massive building with a main hall as large as a football field and a ceiling that’s a hundred feet overhead. I remember as a child arriving in the station, climbing up the stairs from the train into the great hall, and feeling as though I was outside, the ceiling seemed that remote. On a whim I walked into the hall. There were early rising, upwardly mobile businesspeople swirling about, drinking coffee, reading the Wall Street Journal and licking boots just to keep in practice. Waiting for trains to New York and D.C. I looked up at the ceiling, puckered, and blew a note. It rang out in the hall, echoing off the marble, taking forever to decay.
Some things decay quite quickly, western civilization for example, but the note decayed slowly. I whistled the same note twice, two short blasts. Full bore, lots of volume, nicely amplified by the enormous hall. I drifted into a rousing rendition of “Ding, dong merrily on high.” Walked around the room and tested the acoustics from different angles. People were starting to eye me curiously but hey, was that going to bother me? I found that it actually took so long for the sound to die that I could use the echo as a base and whistle on top of it. Now I was doing the carol as a round, using the echo as a second voice. I found this highly amusing, simply droll, just too too funny, trés amusante, and tried it out with several carols. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Good King Wenceslas. Joy to the World. The music intoxicated me. People were eyeing me suspiciously, as if to say, it’s awfully early in the morning to be so cheerful, what’s wrong with this picture? I Saw Three Ships. I was wailing now.
I kept walking around the room as I performed, harder to hit a moving target. I knew that sooner or later some long-suffering lowly hod carrier, some factotum, some dolt, some running dog lackey of the petite bourgeoisie would tell me to put a lid on it. Away In A Manger. To amuse myself I tried different tones and different speeds. With turbocharged intensity I whistled as fast as I could. Then I hit on something that gassed me. Boparoopie. The speed made it possible to hang notes in the air long enough to lay another melody on top of them. So I started whistling discordant pairs of carols.
First a phrase from Joy To The World. Then, with those notes floating above the heads of my unsuspecting and defenseless audience like angels with erections, (I should point out that it was the notes that bore a resemblance to angels with erections, not my audience, my audience bore a resemblance to alien zombies just back from a shopping trip to John Wanamaker’s), a phrase from Good King Wenceslas. Back and forth. It took some puckering but I was getting such a jolt from it that I just kept going. An impromptu, improbable, Christmas happening in your face you whitebread corn pone brain dead blockhead. Something to tell your better half tonight. This guy, he was whistling two Christmas carols at the same time, it was weird. Rahsaan Roland Kirk, this is my Christmas present to you. A tribute to the immensity of your spirit. A little duty-free gift for the traveler. Roland Kirk, God rest his soul, should there be one, and if there is, fuck you pal, I’m tired of carrying water, do you hear me, was a wonderful jazz musician who, among other amazing feats too numerous to go into here, although I’m tempted, often played two saxophones at the same time.
When I hit the end of my number, lightheaded from the expenditure of breath, I headed for the door. I scanned the faces for responses. Some grins, mostly from the souls living closer to the cliffs. Some scowls. If they can’t take a joke, throw them the hell off the bus. Some good old-fashioned confusion, what does it mean? But I felt good. I knew I’d nailed it to the wall. Alistair’s extra-normal tribute to Christmas. Alistair, the man who plays flute, saxophone and train station. I hit the door without any slatch, no stationmaster’s condemnation. A perfectly executed piece of performance art. Out the door he goes.
When I begin counting my blessings I quickly run out of fingers and toes. Of course, there are the obvious ones – Manic Depression and Alcoholism – both of which have given me more than I could ever repay. But those afflictions are commonplace.
I also have a rare blessing, an unsolicited gift bestowed upon me by a higher authority. It is: I know exactly why I exist and what I am on earth to do. The point of me, the purpose, is clear. I am here to turn my bizarre life experience into balm for fellow travelers. However, I know that one is not afforded the luxury of choosing who one helps, and offering assistance to the ill is somewhat more difficult than one might imagine.
Every now and again it is imperative that I return to the concept that – Doing the right thing is its own reward. Once more I defer to the wisdom of Taz Mopula who said, “If you do the right thing because it is also yields the sweetest practical resolution, you’re already morally bankrupt.” In the damp basements my fellow dipsomaniacs often agonize over how to determine “the next right thing” – I find this disingenuous and somewhat amusing since the next right thing is usually easy to identify – it is almost always the choice that is harder, less appealing, and nets you little, if any, visible reward.
If you do the right thing in hopes of increasing the value of your stock in the eyes of others, you’re doomed. If you do the right thing with the expectation of reward, you’re doomed. I am so lucky that I started down this road involuntarily; otherwise I would never have chosen it. I began writing INVISIBLE DRIVING to save my own life, only later did it even dawn on me that it could benefit others. By then it was too late, I had my work order in hand – I knew what I had to do.
Of course, I had no idea at the time how much punishment I would receive for doing the right thing, but when you’ve spent season after season trudging the landscapes of Hieronymus Bosch, the concept of punishment really loses its meaning.