Good Morning Midnight: Life and Death in the Wild. Chip Brown. New York: Riverhead Books, 2003. 300 pages. Hardcover. $24.95.
A reviewer often struggles to separate his judgment of a book—the author’s work—from his personal feelings about the subject’s life. The book in the reader’s hand may not be the same as the book in the writer’s head. In the case of recent AAJ reviews of biographies, our readers are a tough lot to please. Those who knew the great ones personally may not recognize the portrait the biographer has constructed, as in this year’s review of The Philosophy of Risk, Jeff O’Connor’s story of Dougal Haston’s life. Other readers may not appreciate the man they construe from the biographer’s language, as happened with last year’s review of Robert Roper’s Fatal Mountaineer, a biography of Willi Unsoeld.
In the case of Chip Brown’s Good Morning Midnight: Life and Death in the Wild, the story of Guy Waterman’s life and death, I like to think I am able to sort through these issues: I never met or corresponded with either Waterman or Brown. In the case of Brown’s book, terrific. In the case of Guy Waterman, who am I to say? His is a profoundly sad story and when I finished the book I was deeply shaken. I related to it far less as a climber than as a father and a son.
What you probably know about Guy Waterman is this: that he orchestrated his own death by hypothermia on Mt. Lafayette in New Hampshire’s White Mountains in mid winter of 2000. He hiked up to a spot near the summit and lay down in the snow to die—not far from a cairn he had made to honor his son Johnny, who disappeared climbing in the Alaska Range in 1981. Though there is much more to know about Guy Waterman’s life, the reader of climbing literature is drawn to the story because of these two central events, Guy’s suicide and Johnny’s death in Alaska. The author is interested in answering the question, Why? And the space Brown devotes to Johnny’s story—because it’s dramatic, because it eerily prefigures Guy’s death—suggests that he wishes to connect the two tragedies. But Brown is wary, perhaps overly so, of arriving at such a simple conclusion.
Even without the pair of dramatic deaths, Guy Waterman’s life warrants a biography. Waterman married young, fathered three sons, played jazz piano, worked in Washington D.C. as a speechwriter, and drank too much. By all accounts he was miserable during these years and in a relatively short span of time quit his speechwriting work, stopped drinking, discovered hiking and climbing and made them central to his life, left his failing marriage, and set out to live deliberately. He remarried, and with Laura forged a new life off the grid, as self-sufficiently as possible, in a home of their own design and construction they called Barra. Together Guy and Laura wrote Forest and Crag, a history of the Northeast’s mountains; Wilderness Ethics; and Yankee Rock and Ice, among other titles. Theirs was a highly disciplined, self-sustaining existence full of simple non-materialistic pleasures, including the respect and love of a wide circle of friends. They lived this way right up until Guy, abetted by Laura, took his own life at the age of 66. This is, of course, a gross simplification; Brown’s work is to flesh this story out as best he can, in order to approach the why of it.
Guy’s hiking and climbing life comes across as, if not downright odd, at least a lot different from most climbers I know. He climbed, for example, almost exclusively in his own home range. But it’s not just the lack of interest in other mountains, it’s how he chose to do his climbing: he acended all of the 48 peaks over 4,000 feet in the White Mountains, in winter, and from all four points of the compass. I know, of course, that many of us are single-minded and even obsessed with climbing, but the sort of obsession required for that endeavor seems perhaps more aligned with Guy’s ingrained habit of recording and quantifying minutiae. We learn that in 10 years at Barra “he and Laura had canned 1,977 jars of fruits and vegetables … hand-cut 68.7 cords of firewood … been drenched by 322.16 inches of rain … had picked 5,009 tomatoes.” There are dozens of such examples, some more extreme, throughout the book.
Much is made of Guy’s guilt and grieving over the loss of two sons and strained relationship
with the third. Johnny Waterman is perhaps better known among mountaineers for his 145-day solo ascent of Mt. Hunter in 1978 than for his disappearance from the Ruth Glacier three years later. Johnny’s story has been told before, and told well. Glenn Randall wrote about Johnny in Breaking Point (accurately described by Brown as “gripping and regrettably out of print”); Jonathan Waterman (not related to the New Hampshire Watermans), talks of him in In the Shadow of Denali-, and Jon Krakauer refers to him in Into the Wild. Even without such able writers, Johnny’s story would probably live on as myth. But Brown does a fine job of retelling here, and if we questioned Johnny’s madness, this telling removes the doubt. If the loss of Johnny hit Guy hardest, it’s no mystery—they were much alike. In a chapter on Johnny, from a paragraph about them both, Brown writes: “His mania for indiscriminate documentation bordered on madness as he tried to record the second-by-second flux of daily life.” Though Brown is referring to the son, he’s aptly describing the father as well.
Johnny’s brother Bill’s story is even more mysterious: a lost soul with drug problems, he too disappeared in Alaska, never to be heard from again. Johnny left tracks on the Ruth Glacier, Guy left a note, but Bill’s disappearance was by far the most enigmatic; he left the fewest clues. It’s clear that Guy grieved the loss of his sons. But it’s not at all clear that he might have been able to save them from themselves, as indeed he could not do for himself.
Brown’s biography is somewhat constrained by the apparent lack of participation of Guy’s surviving son Jim and his first wife Emily. Though their marriage is described as horrific, we don’t see much of it on the page. Guy’s shortcomings as a parent, which seem to be at the center of his despair, are likewise more alluded to than shown.
If the book might seem overwrought with its chapter epigraphs from Byron, Dickinson, and Milton, to name only a few, and its repeated references to classical literature, these allusions are perfectly appropriate to a story of Waterman’s life: passages from the classics were always in his thoughts. He had memorized the first eight books of Paradise Lost, and in his own writing reflected on his life in terms of classical references. It seems likely Waterman would have been pleased with these literary touches.
Certainly Brown got the climbing right (even if he meant Goldline and not “gold line,” Millar Mitts and not “Miller Mitts”). I sensed the depth of his immersion in Guy’s world when he observes that “the sixties were some of the last unself-conscious years of climbing.” Debatable, perhaps, but in a very smart, provocative sense.
Browns’ final verdict is sympathetic, even if throughout I felt he had been privately making judgments that he was unwilling to put on the page. He notes in one of many such moments, “Who in all decency could find fault in a man already finding so much fault with himself?”, indicating perhaps more allegiance to his subjects than to his readers. Laura Waterman closed her own obituary for Guy with the lines: “For me it is right that the mystery of our essential individual selves remains unrevealed. Seek not to rend the veil.” The biographer’s job is, of course, quite the opposite, to rend the veil. Brown rends gently.
The story is tragic, in the classical sense that both the author and subject would seem to prefer. Reading it induces some sense of catharsis: surely I felt intense pity and fear. Beyond that I felt that Waterman’s death was the world’s loss, my own loss. Chip Brown may not reduce Waterman’s life to a simple moral, or even any number of morals. Nonetheless I couldn’t help thinking—and this is oversimplification—that although climbing might save us from any number of the world’s ills, in the end it can’t save us from ourselves.