Doug Anderson, Keep Your Head Down: a Memoir (2009) — a Book Review

© 2015 Peter Free


04 August 2015



Attempting to extend poetry into chronological prose is difficult to do — author Anderson partially succeeds


Poet Doug Anderson’s Keep Your Head Down: A Memoir (W. W. Norton, 2009) is a superbly written, but perhaps too prolonged and unrelievedly dark a traipse through substance abuse and mental illness.


The few chapters regarding Anderson’s Navy corpsman experience during the Vietnam War were the most meaningful to me, perhaps because his focus lifts from predominantly himself to others.


For the most part, Keep Your Head Down constitutes page after page of abbreviated (sometimes annoyingly out of chronological order) accounts of drinking to black out, drug abuse, unending fornication, addictive masturbation, perennial mistreatment of — friends, relatives and casual acquaintances — and generally acting tiresomely crazy.


However, the author’s intelligently focused honesty and his superb writing ability elevate his narrative into art, albeit a tormented one.


This memoir of “disturbed” behavior — Anderson’s child psychologist’s description — occasionally became tedious. The book records too many repetitious, abbreviated descriptions of self-destructive behavior — unleavened by insight or noticeable spiritual progress.


Keep Your Head Down may most interest people lacking personal experience with similar darknesses.


But for those of us who have survived and managed to manufacture compassionate worth out of our painful (equally disturbed and disoriented) pasts — Anderson’s chronicle of repeated failure to rise above the clutches of a troubled psyche has mainly the merit of accurately chronicled self-destruction.


I wanted more of who he is now and how he thinks he got there.



Writing samples


On his mother:



My mother made it known to me, and to others, that she did not much like boys.


The beatings and condemnations continued until I was eleven years old.


Many years later, after the war, I asked my mother why she had stopped loving me when I was a child. She was visibly shaken by the question, and her words stumbled. She said things like, “I liked you when you were little. But then you began to grow. It wasn’t normal. When you were seven, your head was too big for your body. There was something wrong with you.”


© 2009 Doug Anderson, Keep Your Head Down: A Memoir (W. W. Norton, 2009) (at pages 31, 28, and 38-39)


On extended family:



My aunt Frances had a cigarette going in every ashtray in the house and was beginning to annoy people. She rattled her ice cubes when she wanted her drink refreshed. Uncle George heard it from the kitchen, like a shepherd hearing the bell of a lost goat, grabbed a bottle, and went into the living room to replenish her. Then he returned to the kitchen, where the men were laughing heartily. At a certain point, my aunt Frances would have a “spell,” or start and argument, or get disoriented, and a scarcely more sober Uncle George had to wobblingly escort her to one of the bedrooms. It was a dance they did until death.


© 2009 Doug Anderson, Keep Your Head Down: A Memoir (W. W. Norton, 2009) (at page 27)


On the Vietnam War:



Spinner is shouting at us. We are running without yet knowing what is happening, locking and loading on the run, hoping to pull on boots, slapping on helmets, stumbling under the weight of our gear across a dry paddy into the hedgerow of the opposite village. The firing starts before I enter the hedgerow and I can hear the whooping of the marines. Just inside, the bodies of NVA regulars are already thick on the ground. Plumes of white phosphorus shoot up from the other side of the stream that divides the village, and then the far tree line boils over with napalm. I don’t know if I hear screams or the hiss of burning thatch.


I see Jeter firing into a corpse with his M16. The corpse is dancing. Jeter is red-faced, like a thwarted child. His eyes are all pupil. This is the kid who most often makes me laugh, who makes me feel most protective, the eighteen-year-old whose parents had to sign for him when he joined up at seventeen. He empties one magazine and slaps in another. He fires again into the corpse. The corpse dances, arms and legs flail, the flat face peeling off the shattered skull, the pink-blue brains scattering, the ground black with blood. Jeter stops suddenly looking dazed.


© 2009 Doug Anderson, Keep Your Head Down: A Memoir (W. W. Norton, 2009) (at page 104)


On travels connected only by the consistency of his substance abuse:



I go to Munich and get kicked off the train for having no ticket by a short inspector with what looks like a gray Nazi had with a little red dot in the front center. I sleep in a Jugendherberge where they make you get up and make your bed at six AM to marching music, and then you’re out of the place till evening, where, prior to dinner, I am ordered to peel potatoes in the kitchen in the preparation of Eintopf mit Wurst.


I get drunk with a German guy at the Hofbrau House who asks me if we are still having problems with “the neegers” in my country. I go to Mannheim, which is as dull as Springfield, Massachusetts, and I get back on the train and go to Heidelberg, where you can smoke hash at the Melanie bar and buy carpets sold by Turks, and then go out and watch the barges churn up soap suds in the Necker.


© 2009 Doug Anderson, Keep Your Head Down: A Memoir (W. W. Norton, 2009) (at page 201)


And in closing:



Robert Stone, in Prime Green, writes “Language is the process that lashes experience to the intellect.” May we once again honor books. May our words be who we are. May we care when those in power lie. I realize I am writing a kind of prayer.


© 2009 Doug Anderson, Keep Your Head Down: A Memoir (W. W. Norton, 2009) (at page 283)



Recommended? — Perhaps


I would have appreciated this superbly written memoir more, had Anderson spent more time developing his last theme — regarding words, truth and prayer. For me, Keep Your Head Down is too unilluminated a trek through psychic difficulty and too little a climb out of it.