Phyllis Theroux is best known for a perceptive memoir, “California and Other States of Grace,” and stints as an essayist for The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour and House Beautiful. She excels at closely observed and elegantly expressed portraits of domestic life that fondly recall the tradition of E.B. White.
Theroux is a lovely writer, but she doesn’t publish often. In her latest book, The Journal Keeper: A Memoir, Theroux suggests that writing without a tenured job or a supportive spouse presents special obstacles. She also confesses to writer’s block. When a writing project about Theroux’s mother hit a creative impasse, a fellow writer suggested that Theroux put the project aside “and work on something a bit easier – like editing your journals.” The result is “The Journal Keeper,” which distills six years of Theroux’s journals to detail her life from 2000 to 2005.
Although the premise might sound expedient – personal journals, by their nature, tend to read like rough drafts – Theroux succeeds at arranging her entries, “like puzzle pieces in the sofa cushion,” into a sustained narrative. She is also such a polished stylist that the daily jottings on display here seem to anticipate a wider audience than the solitary diarist who first wrote them.
It also helps that the years chronicled in “The Journal Keeper” were, for Theroux, at least, particularly eventful ones. We’re introduced to a household that includes Theroux and her mother, “who came to live with me at a time in my life when we both qualified for senior citizen discounts at the movies.” As her eyesight fades and her general health deteriorates, Theroux’s aged mother comes to enjoy casual walks in the graveyard, which she cheerfully accepts as a reminder of her near future. A sprightly New Age mystic who’s equal parts curmudgeon and Kahlil Gibran, Theroux’s mother proves as memorable as the title character of Bailey White’s “Mama Makes Up Her Mind.”
After her mother makes a final trip to the cemetery, Theroux, a divorced mother with an empty nest, finds consolation in the community of Ashland, Va., a small town where she regards her neighbors “as characters who wake up every morning in an ongoing story and position themselves onstage for another sixteen hours of walking, talking and doing. Our scripts are mostly in our heads, although underlying the action is the question, ‘How will we make our mark upon the world today?’ For the most part this is an illusion. It is the world that makes its mark upon us.”
Like Henry David Thoreau, who famously professed that he had done a lot of traveling in Concord, Theroux finds a world of possibility in Ashland. While she records trips to Italy, California, New York City, and Washington, D.C. in “The Journal Keeper,” Theroux notes “something mysterious but obvious about the importance of staying put. The soul cannot do its work when we are in constant motion. It requires the knowledge that it won’t be asked to move too far from home.” Although she embraces the benefits of travel, Theroux revels in being “back in my wing chair, listening to the language of my old house as its pipes ping and creak in the winter cold.”
Through Theroux’s prose, we come to hold Ashland as closely as a snow globe village clasped at eye level. During a rare appearance at a church service, Theroux realizes that “my pleasure comes from enjoying the faces as they take their places in the pews and march back from communion. Like speed-reading a lot of books. It catches me up on the town.”
The promise of such neighborly intimacy becomes newly urgent in a journal entry shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. “Thinking about how our country was taken unawares by the terrorists, how we had no idea that we were going to be attacked, reminds us that the demand for human intelligence depends upon human community,” Theroux writes. “This is where America is primitive and the third world is sophisticated. We are a nation of isolated people, living in planned communities slashed by six-lane highways. We do not know who our neighbors are.”
While visiting an Internet dating site, Theroux discovers that one of her neighbors is also a suitable husband. “This book is the first fruit of that new life,” she tells readers. With any luck, there will be more literary fruit to come, and soon. The best thing about “The Journal Keeper” is the way it leaves us hopeful – and expectant – about what will happen next.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”