Fall 1988, Volume 5.2
Scott F. Oates
Fall Out of Heaven: An Autobiographical Journey by Alan Cheuse. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1987, 308 pp., $17.95.
Scott F. Oates (M.A., Middlebury College, Bread Loaf School of English) teaches creative writing at Brighton High School in Salt Lake City. He is immediate past president of the Utah Council for Humanities Education.
When I was a boy, sometimes I wondered why I and not someone else was my parents' child. Next, I would try to imagine myself as the son of a different mother and father, and also try to imagine someone else in my place in my family. These imaginings were futile but not fruitless, for suddenly, my exercise, likely conducted in the backyard on a do-nothing August afternoon, graced me with a certain knowing of my self: because I was unable to imagine me as the child of other parents, I felt my self and my place to be solid and determined. I experienced this affirmation and consolidation of my psyche because I intuited myself in the context of my family. The whole experience amounted to feeling as if some underground river had guided my parents, brothers, and me to be this family.
Alan Cheuse's Fall Out of Heaven, a strong and moving "autobiographical journey," makes me remember those do-nothing August afternoon exercises. Cheuse's journey is the locating and following of those underground rivers that run through his life. Both the source and the destination of his journey bring him to what he seeks: the consolidation of self. He gains this by finally embracing his dead, once rejected, old-world Russian father.
Cheuse's autobiographical journey is a confluence of three stories: one, a manuscript left by Alan's father, Phillip, that tells of his adventures as a pilot for the Red Army Air Force in the 1930s; another, Alan's difficult growing up in Perth Amboy, New Jersey; and the third, the journal Alan keeps while he travels through Russia following his father's death. Alan and his son journey to Khiva, a desert city near the Pakistani border, where Fishel Kaplan--Phillip's name before he Americanized Fishel and took his mother's surname--spent his "best youth" flying in a secret war against counterrevolutionary Muslims.
Though the stories are told separately, they advance simultaneously in chapters that rotate from episode to episode. The structure succeeds: each story moves chronologically, while the book has the feel of memory's associational powers. Fall Out of Heaven recovers time and the dead, healing Alan Cheuse--a reminder that psychic wholeness and a new voice surface when intuition flows the past and present together.
The story of Fishel Kaplan is of a life of certainty and direction. "These are true stories," says Cheuse, "shaped not unlike fiction. Normally one makes a novel to give a semblance of life, but in this rare case we have a life that seems as rich and as exciting and as determined and powerful as a novel." Kaplan's assignment in the Uzbekistan is exotic--the dry, pungent nights, the minarets and mosques, and the muezzins stirring the desert with calls for prayer. In this romantic setting, Fishel Kaplan becomes a hero: landing his biplane in a field to rescue a downed flyer, he is gravely wounded in the groin while taking off into a band of Muslims shooting and charging on horseback. Kaplan is romantic but thoroughly modern: an ordinary man encountering extraordinary experiences. His life advances, "determined and powerful as a novel," moving him toward America. Twice more Kaplan is in jeopardy in a plane, and each incident advances him from the USSR and toward becoming the father of Alan Cheuse.
The story of Alan Cheuse growing up in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, is about the ugliness and loneliness of fathers and sons who, because they cannot communicate, live in lonely anger. While Fishel Kaplan's story is romantic and exotic, Alan Cheuse's story is isolated and frustrated; Fishel Kaplan's young life was unselfconsciously heroic, but Alan Cheuse's young life is pridefully forced and negative. Alan and his father are lost to each other in Perth Amboy because they are searching for their voices and contexts. The father, spiritually lost away from Russia, ignores his sons in order to work on his manuscript, trying to recover the context, restore the culture in which he once flourished with certainty. And because Phillip has no interest in American popular culture, Alan suffers for a father to take him to ball games, movies, and other such American-boy experiences. Phillip Cheuse's inaccessibility as a father profoundly inhibits young Alan, for he, like his father, is out of context, also needing a voice--the voice of a mentor-father by which he can test model his growing up. Alan remembers a Victrola at the house of his grandparents that serves as the metaphor for the voice he seeks but cannot find:
His Master's Voice
That inscription beneath the picture of the dog with head cocked toward the spinning record on a turntable, a duplicate of the larger one above it, intrigued the boy. . . . he could not figure out the mystery of the dog with the head inclined in question. Who was the master? What was the voice?
In Edward Albee's The Zoo Story, Jerry says to Peter, "sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly." Alan must travel all the way to Khiva in order to integrate the father he lived with, in order to restore and heal himself and replace the angry voice of young Alan Cheuse with a voice of generous understanding. He arrives in Khiva, seeking an epiphany by climbing to the very rooftop on which his father slept, and by drinking from the river from which his father drank. But he abandons this planned climactic integration. "My visit here is real," he writes, "not symbolic." And so the genuine epiphany comes. Sitting in a cool, dark tea house after hours in Khiva's hot sun, Cheuse asks his guide to introduce him to a group of old men. One man is also a traveler, all the way from Dushanbe, which borders on China and Afghanistan. The old men return greetings and then the man from Dushanbe asks where Alan and his son are from. The guide tells them the United States. "He says that he does not know where your country is, but he is sure from the look of you that you have come a long way, too."
What Alan Cheuse understands now is that he has been to Khiva and that this journey through Russia, his father's manuscript, and his own miserable youth have given him the understanding that the journey must continue: "I understand that just as life made it difficult for me to progress before I came here it now seems possible for me to move along." The integration of Fishel Kaplan/Phillip Cheuse into his life has not brought the final epiphany or resolution; but restoring his father in his heart will make it possible for Alan Cheuse to continue his own journey with a new voice and a healed psyche.
Not only does Fall Out of Heaven make me remember the gift of those do-nothing August afternoons, but it shows me what makes the remembering possible: the mature vision and craft of the artist. After all, these understandings, epiphanies, confluences--though they are powerfully felt in their moments--are delicate matters to communicate and consider. They are slender for all their power, invisible for all their felt presence. They are like water, and that is why it takes the lightness and luminousness of art to fashion them into a home.