‘Beautiful Place’ memoir of poetic melancholy

I HATE TO LEAVE THIS BEAUTIFUL PLACE. By Howard Norman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 194 pages. $26.

“What good is intelligence if you cannot discover a useful melancholy?”

Toward the close of his rather exasperating memoir, novelist Howard Norman quotes this passage from the work of Ryunosuke Akutagawa to illustrate the tension he feels when contemplating sadness and joy. Joy being, in Norman’s estimation, “a reliable, compelling — and yes, at times even transcendent — duet between a melancholy natural to my character and irony.”

Such expressions give one a ready clue as to the tenor of this literate, observant but sometimes irritating series of vignettes by the two-time National Book Award nominee for fiction.

Norman has found melancholy in all its shadings. And it is frequently a wallow. He is a novelist with a poet’s sensibility, which cuts both ways. His glimpses of the natural world can be lovely: sanderlings forage a beach with their bills “as if trying to stitch in place the wavering margin between tide and beach,” a pale moon over a marsh is “borrowed for the night from a Japanese scroll,” a cat’s growling purr courses down its body like “a gentle seismic wave.”

But his take on humanity’s daily life is somewhat less engaging. Not every mundane happening is as freighted with meaning as the author would have it. Norman reports what he had for lunch as if it were a talisman of deepest significance.

All too indicative of the book is the title piece, an account of his experiences living among the Inuit during his 20s while working for the Arctic Oral History Project. What might have been a revealing look at that culture is in fact deadened with banality. It is one thing to relate the varied rituals and beliefs of a people and to respect their role in how societies evolve and function. But it is quite another to take the most preposterous superstitions seriously, as Norman appears to have done, and not to have realized it in later years.

Indeed, “I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place” is shot through with the author’s own quaint, suggestive delusions: seeing “ghosts,” being persecuted by maniacal shamans, forging “connections” where none exist. He also wants to have it both ways, curtly dismissing the notion of clairvoyant powers in those he considers disagreeable.

He also abhors platitudes, yet dispenses armies of his own.

The most absorbing part of the book is “Grey Geese Descending,” involving his halting love affair with a free-spirited young woman in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and his relationship with an adopted “uncle” there. These passages harbor genuine insight and poignancy, however undermined they are by the repeated narrative digressions to which Norman succumbs.

Yet it is in the final section, “Kingfisher Days,” a wrenching account of a murder and suicide, that Norman’s overworked sensitivity finally compels us to cry “Enough!” It is not the tragic deaths that occurred in the Normans’ Washington, D.C. home while they were summering in Vermont, but rather the family’s extreme reaction to it that confounds.

Certainly, one can never know how one will respond unless it happens to you — and this is not to minimize the shock of such an event — but Norman scarcely knew the mother and son who were living in his house, and his depiction of his family’s year-long (and more) “recovery” from its aftermath of their deaths smacks of disproportionate self-indulgence and melodrama.

Watching the film “M” 30 times to try to gain insight into child murder? Insisting on making sense of senseless acts? Pondering, morosely, the aesthetics of death? Having “formal hallucinations” of shadow-plays at his doorstep? Enduring “an ongoing vigil against despair ... falling apart, gathering, falling apart”? Jetting off cross-country to “lose myself among the birds ... to empty out mentally and physically, then get filled again”? This gets more than a little labored.

If he has succeeded in connecting these “incidents of arresting strangeness” that suffuse the five (choppily composed) sections of this book, as kudos for it insist, that connection is tenuous at best.

There are too many disjointed elements, too many asides that are apropos of nothing. And too many tedious ruminations altogether for so slender a volume.

Reviewer Bill Thompson is a writer and editor based in Charleston.