Lunging into the Underbrush – A Life Lived Backward by David Homel

A Memoir of Defining Trauma, Lifelong Pain and Adequate Survival

Overall, the impression this brief, delicately written memoir leaves is of having spent a few hours with a wordsmith unconcerned with that particular talent, but rather focused on sharing his most difficult challenges, the ugliest moments of his life, his fears, his greatest failings and the long path to various, cathartic learnings. Homel, the novelist, filmmaker, literary translator, journalist and creative writing teacher, is in a sense not really present in these pages. The goal of the book seems not to teach the reader anything specific, and certainly no literary skill or lesson, but rather aims to connect on a profound human level. ‘Here are the challenges I faced and how they almost did me in,’ he seems to want to tell us, daring to share everything that has hurt him, and there was a good deal of it sprinkled throughout is life. Homel’s recounting of these episodes, the worst ones painted with such fine, introspective brushstrokes, must have hurt him all over again as he did so.

Painful must be the grind of writing a memoir worthy of revisiting one’s own ghastly, excruciating milestones.

Homel says, about halfway in the book, interestingly at a point about halfway in his life:

“… I discovered something crucial. I saw how I could go from fighting myself, all that lunging into the underbrush business, and turn my efforts to fighting aging… with all its forms of physical and psychic fatigue and incapacity.”

Throughout the book, we join Homel on a path along these types of transformative, deeply personal moments. His vibrant inquisitiveness, very much a part of his apparent personality, seems answered mainly by happenstance, sometimes horrific, rather than by his own efforts to generate impactful changes in his life. His defining accident, when at 19 he fell down a cliff in Spain, resulting in catastrophic injury to his legs, was the unfortunate keystone around which his early life of pain and dependency was built. The horror of that incident is presented in stark, cinematic beauty. Homel writes:

“My eyes were flooded with blood, and I wiped them clean. I looked down and saw the bones of my legs splayed off, going sideways in opposite directions. I was alive. I was dead. I was both.”

“Homel makes us live his story with him and explains with clarity how he accepted himself, forgave himself, and was the best person he could be based on his self-admitted, not-always-reliable capabilities.”

When cracking open the book’s first pages, assumptions come to mind, one being that ‘Lunging in the Underbrush’ covers territory familiar to a small tradition of stories of young, war-frightened American men finding their way to Canada to avoid the draft. Jack Todd’s ‘Desertion in the Time of Vietnam’ is one of those guilt-magnifying stories, but after analysis, Homel’s truth-seeking tale lies closer to the terrain explored in Philip Roth’s Everyman novella, where the protagonist, like Homel, tries to come to terms with the excruciatingly unavoidable limitations of humanity, in its weakness, ebb-and-flow of energy and desire and constant fear of mortality. Farina’s 1966 ‘Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me’ also comes to mind for how Homel’s work offers a visceral, in-the-moment, approach to storytelling. Homel makes us live his story with him and explains with clarity how he accepted himself, forgave himself, and was the best person he could be based on his self-admitted, not-always-reliable capabilities.

“Pain was my hiding place… A life lived in pain was something special to me, a singularity, a red badge, but also a negotiating position, a point that situated where I stood.”

Like the story itself, the life explained, Lunging into the Underbrush, is unusual. In some ways it reads like a crime novel, bringing the reader into a very uncomfortable awareness of things gone wrong, but being a memoir, it points out in passage after passage the responsibility Homel, our main character, holds for his misfortunes. There is no mystery here, except for that one question that returns over and over again in the account; why does Homel not take better care of himself? What drives him? Where is this man’s notion of self-preservation? In what part of himself does his creativity lie, on which he built his professional life? Perhaps another book, or another few chapters in this one, will take care of these questions? On that level, is Lunging in the Underbrush a work in progress, just as Homel himself contends he is as well?

For all the physical and emotional pain Homel endured, Lunging in the Underbrush does leave us with some distinct wisdom. Some of its passages are thoughtful and brilliant. When Homel intimately reviews his non-linear path in life, he is confident and unwavering on his deepest learning, most distinctly in consideration of his cherished wife.

“… She shrugs off my compliments. Who wouldn’t? But she does tolerate them, because she lets me into her bed. And allows me to admire her, though I can tell that sometimes it is physically painful for her to let me look. She closes her eyes so she won’t see me admiring her. … Yes, this is a secret. Don’t forget the basic human need to bring out what is hidden.”

With Lunging Into the Underbrush, Homel offers a unique exploration of a young man growing through tremendous challenge, becoming an older man that even he is not fully at ease with, all toward an understanding of the importance of being kind to ourselves, to forgive ourselves, no matter how much pain our errors may bring, and to be unafraid of who we may become.
This account is a reminder of both how fragile our body is that we inhabit and how much more robust it can be when we help it along.

Where David Homel may choose to think he has failed in his own life, he now triumphs with Lunging in the Underbrush. This is a true story built on the framework of human resilience and kindness, and plainly a gripping read.

David Homel was born in Chicago in 1952 and left that city in 1970 for Paris, living in Europe the next few years on odd jobs and odder couches. He has published eight novels, from Electrical Storms in 1988 to The Teardown, which won the Paragraph Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction in 2019. He has also written young adult fiction with Marie-Louise Gay, directed documentary films, worked in TV production, been a literary translator, journalist, and creative writing teacher. Lunging into the Underbrush is his first book of non-fiction. He lives in Montreal.

  • Publisher : Linda Leith Publishing (April 1 2021)
  • Language : English
  • Paperback : 247 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 177390079X
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1773900797

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Denis Coupal is a Canadian novelist and screenwriter. His first novel, BLINDSHOT, won GOLD in The Miramichi Reader’s 2020 Best first novel award, was shortlisted for the Crime Writers of Canada award for Best First Novel, and optioned by Entourage Television Group for development as a TV series.