Clear-Eyed Courage

Book cover
Pull Me Upby Dan Barry

W. W. Norton & Co. 320p $24.95

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There is something of an unwritten rule among many writers that unless you’re a celebrity or have done something truly extraordinary, you shouldn’t come out with a memoir until you hit at least retirement age, if not beyond.

That rationale counts even more if you’re a journalist. It is, after all, your job to write about others’ foibles and triumphs, not your own.

Then again, there are always exceptions. Can a fortysomething reporter whose life seems almost exasperatingly normalexcept for a few things here and there, and a keen eye and a very fine style, deceptive in its straightforwardness and simplicitywrite a memoir that is by turns funny, honest and graceful?

In this case, absolutely.

Dan Barry’s Pull Me Up is filled with equal measures of grace and guts. Everything anyone who grew up Irish and Catholic and light-blue collar in the suburbs wanted to know about just how much in common we all had is likely to find it here.

Pull Me Up, though, is a departure from the now-standard recollection of those trying to recover from horrible experiences. It is not a book about blame, revenge or agony.

Dan Barry was the eldest of four. His father was first-generation Irish, and his mother, Noreen Minogue Barry, arrived in New York when she was but 15. Like many Irishwomen, she was much tougher than her demeanor suggested, which held a certain appeal for Gene Barry.

Like a lot of people who grow up to be writers, Dan Barry possessed powers of observation early on, though he wouldn’t come to appreciate them until much later.

Storytelling played its role, too, and neither of Barry’s parents were slouches at this often elusive craft. The tales helped to feed both Dan’s imagination and his strong sense of family history.

Pull Me Up, however, is delightfully sneaky. Just when it seems this is another tale of talk show guts and huggy-kissy glory, Barry throws a curveball. There is, for instance, the story of his dying mother. A heavy smoker for most of her life, Noreen Barry developed lung cancer. The book’s title comes from what she would say to her eldest when she was too weak to move on her own from the living-room couch: Pull me up, Danny. Pull me up.

She died in 1999. Doctors threw Barry himself a curveball that same year, when he was diagnosed with tracheal cancer. He was not a smoker. He had gone, in 1995, from The Providence Journal to The New York Times. He had distinguished himself with a writing style that was keen and direct, but also had an underlying empathy to it.

After the diagnosis, Barry’s fine Irish had been gotten up so high it was pushed off the charts. He was mad, livid, apoplectic. He was too young to die. He and his splendidly named wife, Mary Trinity Barry, who met when Barry was a student at St. Bonaventure, had just adopted the first of their two daughters.

Barry had fallen in love with Mary Trinity with endearingly awkward speed. How desperate was he? Come, won’t you please, to Providence? he pleads, after he was hired by The Providence Journal in Rhode Island in 1987. She must have loved him, because she followed him.

He couldn’t die on these people he loved so much and upon whom he so heavily relied. Haven’t we just gone through this? he writes of the day he was diagnosed. He slams his hand on the dashboard of the car as he and his wife are headed back to New Jersey from a visit to Sloan-Kettering in New York. First your mother! Then my mother! Christ, we just buried her five months ago!

That Barry does not dwell on this is one of the book’s great strengths. So too is the matter-of-factness with which Barry confronts childhood and adolescent incidents that these days would be psychoanalyzed to death. There are those out there who would have it that childhood be bereft of all negativity; but from where, then, will the lessons come?

The best example, perhaps, is to be seen in Barry’s description of a beast he calls the Phelan Bus. Like all the other freshmen at St. Anthony High School, he was put to several tests, many of them on the bus. These included being given a nickname that can’t be printed here. We would call the boys who tormented Barry bullies. But Barry is too wise to fall into the victim trap. Something in his upbringing prepared him for handling torments. Maybe it was a helping of the fear, hope and clear-eyed courage that brought his mother to these shores 51 years ago.

Be warned, however, that Pull Me Up isn’t a story of triumph or resolve. It is a slice of life delivered as is, with a bracing absence of psychobabble. Gracefully written yet hardheadedly realistic, the book is an argument for living in the moment, but without the rampant hedonism with which that is usually associated.

It is almost as though Barry has an innate understanding of the idea, now passé (in some circles, at least), trust in God, and everything will fall into place. He is a man of faith, albeit sometimes a bit ornery.

Like many cancer survivors, Barry likewise knows there is grace to be found in every thing and every moment. Pull Me Up is proof between pages that he knows this is true.

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