Arts & Leisure

Adirondack memoir explores a particular kind of male friendship

JON CODY

Christopher Shaw’s recently published memoir “Crazy Wisdom,” which explores the decades-long friendship with his widely admired but deeply flawed late friend Jon Cody, excels in its descriptions of harrowing scenes.

Some of the most memorable of those scenes, which shimmer with great energy and the intensity of lived (though sometimes regretted) experience, relate to Shaw and Cody’s attempts in the mid-1980s to launch a canoe guiding service in the Adirondacks.

In April of the year in question, Shaw and Cody drove from Lake Placid, N.Y., to the Mad River Canoe Company in Waitsfield, Vt., picked up four large canoes — including two 18-footers — lashed them to the roof of their car, two atop two, and drove back over the Appalachian Gap … into an April snowstorm.

With Cody rolling joints the whole way, Shaw “white-knuckled it down the western side in the slushy wet snow,” he writes, then “drove west through Bristol and out across the Dead Creek flats of the Champlain Valley, through forty-mile-per-hour gusts, the boats acting as a sail as we got blown all over the road.”

Somehow they managed to get the canoes home “without a scratch.”

But a few months later, as Shaw describes in fascinating detail, the friends found themselves in another pickle, this time while trying to navigate the rapids of the Raquette River.

One of the images that will forever be seared into Shaw’s memory, he writes, is of “the canoe filling with water and slamming with a dull crack against a rock while the stern line tightened around my fist.”

A few months after that, a disagreement about who (or what) was at fault in the river incident served as a pretext for an already simmering conflict that ended up working itself out with the help of alcohol (and maybe some other substances) at a  bar.

JON CODY IN the military.

The conflict rose and fell and rose again, culminating in yet another harrowing scene, which follows Shaw’s attempts to drive Cody home.

Shaw, a Bristol resident and retired Middlebury College writing teacher, grew up an aspiring writer in Schenectady, N.Y. He moved to the Adirondacks in his early 20s with the dream of becoming “the Gary Snyder of the East,” met Cody in 1975.

At the time, Shaw was feeling lost.

“I thought I was a back-to-the-lander, but I was a bad gardener, a worse carpenter,” he writes. “I didn’t even know the names of a lot of tools or what they did. The vocabulary of the manly practical skills had a music I had never heard — kerf, swage, and plumb — and I learned it with the interest of poetic rather than mechanical craft.”

He was equally lost behind the bar or waiting tables, and he couldn’t change his own sparkplugs.

“None of this made me a desirable hire.”

In contrast, Shaw writes, Cody’s “big wide open face beamed like the hopeful spring twilight that had stunned so many of us into wandering out.”

By then Cody had already become something of a legend in the region, “consorting with the rabble who then haunted West Stony Creek, trappers and outlaws whose Thunder Road-type melodramas and comedies somehow, one way or the other, over thirty-five years, never quite ended with Jon either being arrested or put in jail.”

Fascinated, Shaw was drawn into Cody’s orbit.

Telling the story of their friendship was not always easy, he told the Independent.

But, he noted, “the only way to tell the story of a person’s life, ethically, to be read by people who are still living, is to be as open and honest and vulnerable as possible.”

Often in “Crazy Wisdom” it seems that Shaw’s trying to reach this state through a kind of relentless self-scrutiny, especially when he compares himself to Cody.

Other times, it is a genuine affection and curiosity that draws the reader in.

During the tense scene at the bar mentioned above, Cody, “pretty far gone but not yet knee-walking,” said something that caught Shaw off-guard.

CHRISTOPHER SHAW

“One thing I know … is that there is love between men.”

“I knew about the phenomenon, obviously, from books and from life, its nuances platonic, filial, and erotic,” Shaw writes. “I knew we loved each other in our ways, and that Cody sometimes saw directly and clearly into complex and troubling subjects. But to hear the words coming from his mouth three or four months after our near-death experience (on the river) and after tearing me a new asshole for being a whiny sniveling … sponging artsy-fartsy wannabe and lousy father left me momentarily speechless. It had no element of sexuality or proposition in it — though perhaps it was tinged with longing, the unbridgeable gulf separating us, and a sadness around knowing he was losing me to this mysterious occupation (of writing).”

“I know,” Shaw said to Cody. And he left it at that.

It is scenes like this one that provide the real action of “Crazy Wisdom,” which is the act of unpacking such wisdom, which makes Shaw’s memoir feel less indebted to Kerouac or Cassady or Ginsburg than to Coleridge and Wordsworth.

Of the latter, William Hazlitt once wrote, “Coleridge’s manner is more full, animated, and varied; Wordworth’s more equable, sustained, and internal. The one might be termed more dramatic, the other more lyrical.”

So it was with Jon Cody and Christopher Shaw, both poets in their own ways, and so it is still — lively and flawed and miraculous — in these pages.

“Crazy Wisdom” is available at the Vermont Book Shop. For more information about Christopher Shaw visit cshaw.net.

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