The Cliff Walk
by Don J. Snyder
Don J. Snyder takes a long years journey into a self-made hell. The English department at Colgate is overcrowded, axing low man Snyder. Students protest. No luck. Snyder looks jobs using curiously unresourceful techniques. Worse luck. Too many English professors populate America. A year later Snyder is broke, lying on his back, zonked out.
Comparatively minor problems, perhaps, but Snyder has a pregnant wife and four children. Snyder’s wife, Colleen, tolerates too much. After putting himself and his family through hell, Snyder takes a golf course maintenance job, later finding a new self and a new career in building repair and construction, the textbooks ceremoniously taken to the dump, the life he loved traded in for a life he spent decades escaping. The academic salesman finds a new way to sell himself. Snyder is a protagonist with an Achilles tumor on a journey through degradation. Cliff Walk is not for readers looking for pretty memoirs.
Snyder splendidly details experiences, storytelling that reaches parts of the mind that most individuals would rather not tap. Without a trace of mawkishness, Snyder shares tender family experiences with rich images: Kissing, walking, peeing--as in his son peeing on him at night, the uncle who carried his crippled daughter till his death, the Snyders pretending to be drunk Russian figure skaters. Snyder's misadventures as a neophyte carpenter are equally rich and chilling--blood, cold, fumbles, and all. Stories of intimacy are rare amid the violence and glib romances of today.
A cover blurbster "marked paragraphs to read aloud, to share with others, on almost every page." I marked and highlighted my copy too, and I dislike most memoirs.
Thoreau wrote that a wise person does not do desperate things. Death of a Salesman and its personal tragedies of shallow materialism, misplaced optimism, and unwillingness to face facts are beloved by Snyder. The mistakes resemble Snyder's own, except misplaced pessimism takes the place of misplaced optimism. As someone said, don't be another ne'er-do-well man, made pathetic by illusory enemies and an unlived life.
Snyder probably cost himself thousands in sales by chronicling so much. If he wrote this as a Reader's Digest version, he might have had a best seller. Instead, Snyder does not let his aesthetic standards waver. Not a book for tender-hearts or those who think characters should be paragons of phony virtue, this is exquisite writing on the dreaded subject of struggling with oneself.
"There it is in front of you: What you work for and the reason you live. And you keep missing it." may not mean much in a review, but if you read this book, it does. Whatever his character flaws, Snyder knows how to put prose on paper. Snyder will not be interviewed by Barbara Waters, but this is one heckuva a good story. Highly recommended.
Book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 23, 2009.