The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship

  • By Paul Lisicky
  • Graywolf Press
  • 218 pp.

A bittersweet look at the bonds shared — and shaken — by kindred spirits.

The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship

How do you identify the bones of a friendship? When you’re digging through the sandy clay of memory, how do you know that the white protrusion is the beginning, or the end, or a meaningless rock? Where does a relationship between friends start, expand, narrow, crack, shatter, mend, end? Paul Lisicky works to excavate the boundaries of a friendship in his new memoir, The Narrow Door.

Lisicky first met Denise when they were both composition teachers. Denise was loud, brash, funny, captivating. She held her students rapt, and they adored her. Paul was quiet, worried, anxious, and he felt that teaching was like bracing for a wave.

“I can’t even sit on the desk in front of [the class] without feeling it on my back, the cold of it, purified from coming across a great distance at sixty miles an hour.” But Denise’s presence makes him feel braver, more capable, more possible. Lisicky and Denise find balance in the weight of the other.

The friendship teeters back and forth, from daily three-hour phone calls, where mostly Denise speaks and Lisicky listens, to a slow drift through time and moving and spouses and responsibilities, to explosions, misunderstandings, halting reconciliations, back to a new kind of peace. And then Denise is diagnosed with cancer, and everything changes again. As the disease spreads, Lisicky’s marriage begins to strain and tear.

The Narrow Door is about a friendship with a writer, and a marriage with a writer, while being a writer. When you do the same work, how do you support the one you love? How do you ensure that they support you? Especially when one is always doing better than the other, getting more praise, more residencies, more money, publishing more books. Success swings back and forth, but the way the teeter-totter works is both of you can’t be up for most of the time. Yet, somehow, you can both be down.

The book is divided into three sections, each tracing a moment in the arc of Lisicky and Denise’s friendship. The parts vary in length in accordance with their emotional heft — the heavier the feelings, the smaller the section. Part II is a single chapter, a single moment, a single fight that touches every part of the rest of the book.

Each chapter is told by dipping into multiple timelines — Lisicky in the 1980s, Lisicky in the last year of Denise’s life, Lisicky after Denise. Interspersed with his story are the stories of other important figures and episodes: Joni Mitchell, Mt. St. Helens, the Haitian earthquake.

Lisicky is most incisive when he’s dissecting the quiet moments two individuals share and how they yearn to connect across seemingly infinite space. He is glorious in his understanding of his own feelings and, by extension, the human heart. When arguing with his ex, M, he remarks, “The tears burst the dam, though the tears aren’t mine. They’re M’s. Is that what happens in any relationship, healthy or not? One cries the tears of the two.” One person does the emotional work for both.

At times, Lisicky defers so much to Denise, or to M, that they overshadow the author in his own story. He defers to them and spends his time worrying/wondering about them; by the middle of the book, I was eager for them to leave so we could get back to Lisicky’s story, and not that of these two individuals who are so interesting, so flawed, so likely to leave.

Lisicky’s friendship with Denise is glorious, but uneven, then flat and prickly, then warm and even and everything it ever could be just before it’s taken away. His relationship with M is the opposite: always flat, always cozy-warm, always just the right temperature, until it suddenly bubbles to a full, scorching boil and everyone has to get out.

Denise is a natural phenomenon: volcano, hurricane, windstorm, earthquake. She has “a smile that could turn diamonds to black powder, which sounds more like her description than mine.” Lisicky states that he’s writing this book in an attempt to bring her back, to feel her presence again. She grows throughout the book, leaving Lisicky feeling at times that, “[though] I’m still prone to her big shimmering aura…I need some space of my own.”

And then she slowly recedes through sickness and is gone, and M soon after. And we are left alone in the remnants: the still, thoughtful heart of Lisicky’s mind.

Dana Norris is editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine and founder of the Story Club franchise. She teaches at StoryStudio Chicago and has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the Rumpus, the Tampa Review, and other places.

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