Pull Me Up

Like many of us in the journalism dodge, Dan Barry has spent much of his career piecing together the shards of wrecked lives, sidling up to tragedy and then retailing it to the rest of the world, as if such casual intimacy with mortality would somehow inoculate us against its inevitable toll. Yet the more reporters learn about others, the less it seems we know about ourselves, or perhaps the less we want to know. The private lives of journalists are strewn with sad testimony to that cultivated habit of avoidance.

Barry, now a columnist for the New York Times, recognized this trap early in his career, while working at a small newspaper in Connecticut. His moment of insight came when a young newsroom colleague was murdered.

“All those afternoons and nights spent in the newsroom, waiting for the telephone to ring with a good story-a good murder, as reporters like to say-so that I could find diversion from my petty woes,” Barry writes in Pull Me Up, his poignant new memoir. “After all, what is a stranger’s death to a reporter but material for a solemn yarn that explores, yet again, the fragility of our existence? That allows us to cluck and memorialize and find cheap context? Now the gods of journalism had granted my request. Here you go, they had said-asshole. I could barely breathe.”

The episode seems to shock Barry into an awareness of the nearness of death; then life does the rest. His mother falls ill with terminal cancer, and a few months after her death he is diagnosed with a tumor on his trachea. Rather than closing his eyes to it all, however, Barry explores the tragedy of illness, bravely turning his keen journalistic lens on himself to produce a memoir that is riveting, moving, and not the least bit cheap.

The stories Barry tells are often graphic, especially when he recounts his mother’s death and his own brutal course of treatment. And as Barry, who is the About New York columnist for the Times, moves back in time, his recollections of a suburban Long Island boyhood emerge as tactile and vivid experiences, especially so for those of us who are also veterans of a 1960s suburban upbringing. Heck, someone has to remind us that the Yankees used to be losers. Yet for all the pain and nostalgia, Barry always infuses his narrative with such earthy spirituality and wry humor-usually of the self-deprecating variety-that he keeps you rooting for the hero, and convinced that the payoff will be worth the effort. It is.

There is much to mine here, starting with Barry’s evocation of the other side of suburbia, of the daily struggle to survive rather than the Cheeveresque anomie that often characterizes the “suburban novel.” There are his father’s migraines and grinding commute to Wall Street (until the headaches killed the job and left the family teetering) and his parents’ twin crutches of beer and cigarettes that you know, just know, will come back to haunt them. (The title quotes the plea of Barry’s mother, Noreen, to her eldest son as she lay dying.)

There is the durable immigrant saga, the abandonment of the Old Sod for the promise of the New World, only to find the dream so much cheap tinsel. Sure, the children succeed, but at what cost? And there is the coming-of-age angle, a story bursting with equal parts ambition and insecurity, and the triumph of romance despite it all.

For Catholics, however, one of the enduring pleasures of Pull Me Up may be the profoundly Catholic sensibility permeating the book. Barry follows some familiar terrain in recounting the hazing rituals at his Catholic school-merciless bullying produced many a journalist-and the major and minor cruelties of priests and religious. But there are Catholic heroes as well:

A few days after my diagnosis, my friend the Franciscan, Dan Riley, had called to comfort me. He is the St. Bonaventure priest who performed our wedding ceremony, a man who brings refreshing vigor to the cliché of living one’s faith, my trusted spiritual guide. Yet I had shouted at him that I didn’t want to hear any more about the crosses we must bear, or that God gave me this burden because He knew I could handle it, or that I should prepare for the possibility of meeting my maker before Nora graduates from kindergarten. Not that Riley had said any of these things. I had simply used him as a foil for God.

“I love your anger,” Riley had said through his tears. “That’s what makes you you.”

Indeed, Barry himself is an inspiring messenger, whether he intends it or not.

In Barry’s hands, free-throw shooting becomes a devotion-complete with “decades” and supplications to the Almighty-and baseball becomes a liturgy. A chemo drip is “the sound of chemically altered holy water, washing away the sin of my cancer.” And while awaiting a verdict on his cancer treatment, he discerns a cross in the random pockmarks of a ceiling fan’s blades. Andrew Greeley would be pleased with such an imagination.

This is much more than another Irish-Catholic kitchen-sink drama in which religion and tradition are merely handy devices to advance the plot but bear little weight of their own. Nor is it a reflexive embrace of the faith of one’s fathers, the idealization of heritage. Barry goes deeper than that, and perhaps begins to limn a new narrative for a new generation of Catholics. Rather than railing at, and rejecting, the church-and taking satisfaction in recounting such a meager victory-he wrestles with God and learns from the struggle, and by doing so seems to find strength, or at least a way to move ahead: “I raged on through the days and weeks,” he writes of his cancer gauntlet, and continues:

Gradually, though, fear displaced rage. I found that during my weekday walk from Penn Station to the Times building, my whispered mutterings of God, oh God, became the softest notes among the street shouts and horn beats and gear shifts that are synthesized to create the Eighth Avenue Morning Symphony.

Barry leaves plenty of mystery, as he must. There are no easy answers to any life, certainly not his. All that is for sure is that through the sorrows of his mother’s death, the terrors of his own cancer treatment, and the anguish of infertility and the travails of the adoption market, Barry emerges on the other side and generously shares his story. He is a reporter. How could he not?

Published in the 2004-08-13 issue: 

David Gibson is the director of Fordham’s Center on Religion & Culture.

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