The Distancers: An American Memoir

Lee Sandlin‘s new book will read familiar to those of us who grew up in the company of a reliable midwestern archetype: the taciturn, emotionally remote grandparent. Here there’s a quartet not of Sandlin’s actual grandparents but his great uncles and aunts, two of each, and they live together in a house in Edwardsville, Illinois, where Sandlin (Wicked River, Storm Kings) visits them as a child. Originally published as a 12-part series in the Reader, and since revised and expanded, The Distancers pieces together a short history of the Sehnert family—Sandlin’s mother’s side—focusing mainly on these four: two sisters, Helen and Hilda, and their brother Eugene; and Hilda’s unlikable husband, Marty, who endlessly needles his fellow diners at Sunday supper. “It wasn’t long before Hilda was the only one there who could stand him. Agnes was suspicious of him, Helen loathed him, and other guests grew sick to death of him,” Sandlin writes. “But nobody ever dreamed of telling him he wasn’t welcome.” Later in the book Eugene punches Marty, and never acknowledges him again.

Sandlin’s style is austere, favoring declarative sentences and precise, unadorned description. His subject matter recalls Steinbeck—certain parts of this reminded me of East of Eden, in particular. Though the portentous subtitle suggests otherwise, he’s not much concerned with exposition when it comes to events that take place outside the Edwardsville house. Historical change happens in the background until it’s thrust to the fore, as when Eugene goes off to fight in World War II. Even then it’s revealed fitfully: it’s not until he’s old and lonely that Eugene says much more than a word to anybody about anything. But then he really starts talking—for instance, about the time he broke down into sobs in a foxhole and subsequently, after being sent to the hospital, stopped communicating altogether. He was treated with electroshock therapy and insulin injections until, Sandlin writes, “eventually the doctors did succeed in brutalizing him into speaking again.”

The punch, the sobbing—when emotion comes it comes in uncontrollable waves, and fades quickly again into silence. By the end of the book Sandlin seems to be tallying secrets and little tragedies; he’s perhaps the first person to ever give them voice.