I love Calvin Trillin’s fiction and his non-fiction, and picked up a couple of his books when I was in America last year (do other people see him on shelves in the UK? I don’t think I do). I wasn’t sure quite when I’d want to read an account of the downfall of a highschool sports star, but something about the unusually specific nature of this biography appealed to me when I picked it up a couple of months ago. That unusual memoir angle seems to be the theme of this week, doesn’t it?
Remembering Denny (1993) is a peculiar choice for Trillin. The book is about Denny Hansen, somebody Trillin knew at Yale, and the account of how he went from being a high school star to taking his own life in his fifties. Despite only knowing him for a short period of that time, and certainly not being a close friend for life, Trillin wanted to document the journey – speaking with various people who knew him at different stages, putting together a composite image of a single Hansen from many seemingly irreconcilable Hansens. (The title of the book seems one that reflects friendship, but to call him Denny in a review would feel patronising, so I shan’t.) And then: could Trillin discover exactly why it was that Hansen killed himself?
Trillin is such a fine, intuitive, and sensitive writer that he can take the ordinary and mundane and somehow turn it into gold – without ever seeming to overwrite or even display a style. It is the writing of a very talented journalist, rather than a novelist (though in his novels, style and timbre come to the fore); we hear about Hansen’s warm smile, his popularity, his promise, and Trillin makes it seem original. Even more impressive, he makes it seem personal even when writing about a Hansen he had not yet met. Of course, at Yale we get a closer view of Hansen – from Trillin’s own eyes. There are more anecdotes – or perhaps, rather, more evidence to back up the summation of traits, since nothing here seems framed in the ‘here’s-a-funny-story-you-should-hear’ that one expects from a biography. Instead, they compose a narrative of a successful, kind, loved, but very pressured man:
As Denny, he seemed to have a limitless future. We emerged from Yale in June of the year that has since been called a high point in American prosperity. With the peace-making general in the White House and the Cold War having settled into what seemed to us to be a more or less permanent struggle between the good guys and the bad guys, there were reasons to see limitless futures for a lot of people. When I talked to Andre Schiffrin after Denny’s death, he said the picture that comes into his mind when he thinks about how Yale undergraduates viewed the future in those days is Stairway to Heaven – moving up through the clouds on a blissful escalator. We had the usual problems of deciding what we wanted to do, of course, but those problems came partly from the assumption that very little was shut off.
Away from Yale, particularly as the decades move on, the portrait becomes less clear. People lost touch with Hansen; those who met him for the first time in these later years gave less detailed pictures, and seemed less close. Hansen’s character becomes more of a mystery to the reader, presumably because it was a mystery to those who had known him. If Trillin wants to join the dots between the high school success and the man who took his life, then he doesn’t quite succeed. The trail runs cold, because the character becomes less vivid.
Hansen is described as depressive, in debilitating back pain (requiring several, ultimately unsuccessful, operations), and struggling with his sexuality. Any or all of these could have contributed to his decision to kill himself, Trillin writes. But for him, it seems almost as though suicide were the inevitable end to the downward trajectory that Hansen’s life had taken. And this is where I take issue with Remembering Denny, for all of its excellent and often very sensitive writing.
My main problem with this book – but it is a problem that came up on almost every page – was that Trillin took it for granted that Hansen was a failure in his career. He was supposed (so goes the high school reputation) to be a part of a government, if not the President himself. He was not these things, but he was a respected professor with many publications to his name, still working and teaching in his field. I cannot emphasise enough (from the perspective of somebody who has done graduate study and has many friends who are or want to be professional academics) that this is a huge success that relatively few aspiring academics achieve. There must, of course, have been factors that led to Hansen’s suicide, and perhaps he viewed his own career as a failure – but there is no reason for Trillin to consider it that. It really wasn’t. The stumbling block seemed very strange, given Trillin’s usual sensitivity and empathy.
But if one can overlook that, Remembering Denny is an interesting and unusual book. Only Trillin could have written it, I think, and – for any faults it has – that is something rather special.