By Donna Meredith
In a well-known poem, Robert Frost once depicted humans as standing on a shore looking out to sea, unable to perceive much about their world. Philip Gerard, however, writes from the North Carolina coast with an unusual gift for peering not only “out far,” but also “in deep,” a talent vividly displayed in his essay collection, The Patron Saint of Dreams.
Gerard’s fans will probably have encountered some of these fifteen essays elsewhere, as most have appeared in various journals and anthologies. A prolific writer, he teaches in and chairs the creative writing department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. In addition to three books on the art of the personal essay, he is the author of Brilliant Passage: A Schooning Memoir, Hatteras Light, Cape Fear Rising, Desert Kill, and Secret Soldiers.
The first essay, “What They Don’t Tell You About Hurricanes,” illustrates the very best of creative nonfiction technique, combining lyrical language, repetition, impeccable rhythms, and ironic word play. A resident of Wilmington, Gerard chronicles his experience hunkering down as the capricious fury of Hurricane Fran batters the coast. Another piece relates the bonding of neighbors as they clean up and rebuild after the storm, revealing the indomitable spirit of the community in the face of loss and heartbreak.
Many essays stem from Gerard’s life. His mother’s decline from Parkinson’s disease. His days on a baseball team with a rough crew that made him believe he was better than he really was. His encounters with the unexplainable: a phantom chess player, a john boat that wasn’t there, fragments of an unidentified voice on a VHF radio, an eerie Ouija board prediction.
In “Bear Country” Gerard juxtaposes two confrontations with his own mortality, one a youthful excursion into the wilderness. The obvious and forewarned danger of grizzlies turns out to be less of a threat than a life-altering encounter with a rain-swollen river. Moments from that hiking trip are interspersed with his eight minutes of death—and ultimate return—from a heart attack in middle-age. He faced down that metaphorical bear, but flashing before his eyes was not the expected tunnel of light or the faces of his dearly departed family members. Instead a series of cartoon images flash-framed through his mind. The last one was “Fucking Goofy.” What sense was he to make of that? Remembering it still makes him laugh. Wheeling and diving between the two incidents, one youthful, one middle-aged, allows readers to compare the impact of the events for themselves, aided by the author’s metaphors.
A lengthy piece, “The Thirteenth Hour” explores the death at sea of a father, his two sons, and a nephew in a sailing accident in Charleston harbor. Sailing is one of Gerard’s passions, and he brings his knowledge of the sea, sailing vessels, and human frailty to this story of four lives that end in cold water. An accumulation of bad decisions leads to disaster and leaves others asking the inevitable “why?” and “what if?”
One essay offers three behind-the-scenes anecdotes concerning Gerard’s research for Secret Soldiers, the riveting and largely unknown story of 1,100 American artists, actors, designers, and electronics wizards whose dazzling theatrics deceived the German high command in World War II. In one, a soldier reveals secrets he has never told anyone before, not even his wife. Another section of the essay describes a photograph of impending death that captures everything that is wrong—and right—about humanity. In the final section, Gerard helps a daughter reconstruct the father she never knew from photographs and memories others shared of him. The author shares his writing philosophy here: “I believe in the writer as a witness to evil, as a reporter of injustice, as a chronicler of human compassion, even on occasion of greatness, as one whose skills illuminate the Truth with a capital T, without irony. I believe it is the job of the writer to put into words what is worst—and also what is best—about us. To light up our possibilities, discover the finest lives to which we can aspire, and to inspire our readers to greatness of soul and heart.”
He achieves all this—and more—in this collection. His inspired choices in structuring the stories and the selection of not just a correct word, but the best word, make these essays shine like bits of sea glass scattered among billions of grains of sand. Exactly what we would expect of one of the great contemporary teachers of how to write creative nonfiction.