The Curiosity of the Long Distance Runner
All Tomorrow’s Parties
(Grove Press, 2016)
Readers of the Brooklyn Rail may likely be familiar with Tin House, a literary magazine based in Portland and Brooklyn that produces four issues a year. The magazine is self-described as “artful and irreverent,” and keen to “stake out new territory,” which can sound generic until you read All Tomorrow’s Parties, the memoir by Tin House editor Rob Spillman, whose adventures began long before the magazine, as a four year old playing underneath his father’s piano in West Berlin in the 1960s:
“while my father practiced and accompanied or coached singers. As long as I was invisible and silent, I could stay in the safety of his sonic cocoon, the vibrations of the piano strings rumbling through my chest, a soothing sensation that would sometimes deepen with the rumblings of nearby tanks.”
Berlin in the 1960s was the hub of Western creativity, tempting Eastman music students to try their luck. In Spillman’s words, it had “sent out a call like a dog whistle that could be heard only by artists,” such as a pianist from Kentucky and his vocalist wife—Mr. and Mrs. Spillman—who entered this world in spite of the obvious dangers. And so it was that Robby Spillman was born in Cold War Germany in 1964, where tanks trundled down the roads and monitored East Berlin, caged up on the other side of the Wall, and a safe place to play, according to a little kid, was under Dad’s piano.
But Spillman is more curious than scared. When he makes the trip into East Berlin with his father, illegal American dollars tucked into his sock because the soldiers rarely frisk children, he observes the gray of East Berlin well enough for his readers nearly fifty years later:
“the darker, duller gray of the Eastern granite buildings pockmarked with twenty-five-year-old machine-gun fire, the brownish gray of the cobblestones, the iron gray of the tram tracks, and of course, the gray concrete slabs that ringed West Berlin—the Wall, which closed around the city like a noose.”
The curiosity does not abate as Spillman grows up, moves back to the U.S., gets married, and finds himself at twenty-five in New York City, restless to get out. His wife, Elissa Schappell, also a writer, also seeking a life lived intensely, and as fiercely in love with Spillman as he is with her, is cooperative. Move to Europe indefinitely, starting in Portugal, and working eastwards towards Germany? Okay. More challenging for the honeymooners: “sweating over which cassettes to include, Sonic Youth or Mudhoney.” The year is 1989.
Spillman timestamps each chapter of the book with a music track whose title, lyrics, or composer has some connection to events of the chapter. And as the son of musical parents, Spillman’s range of music is broader than the genres he grew up listening to. Besides Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, and other rock bands, Spillman cites Erik Satie, Kraftwerk, Johnny Cash, and operas. The timbre of Spillman’s adventure is as varied as the kind of music each of these artists produces, and Spillman wants your ears attuned to every nuance.
Which is, perhaps, why the story is not told chronologically. While a review is easiest to follow if organized linearly, a life story is not. Spillman confesses in an early chapter that his life is a “continuum of leaps I had been making my entire life,” while he and Elissa are packing to move to the Europe. The next chapter is set at a pizzeria in Berlin, frequented by a young Spillman and his father. Two chapters later, Spillman and Elissa are on a red-eye flight to Lisbon and the end of the next chapter exposes Spillman’s hope for the life he began to lead under his parents, and wants so desperately to continue now that he is an adult: “my father was living for art. I couldn’t imagine anything more romantic and ideal. I still can’t.”
What does it mean to live for art? Each chapter of All Tomorrow’s Parties reveals Spillman’s varied attempts to do so, with different people, in different cities, listening to different music—and why he considers it such an ideal. It’s a singular journey that not everyone around you will want exactly as you see it, and what then? Living for art can be liberating and fulfilling—but it can also be isolating. For reasons other than—but related to—art, Spillman’s parents separate, and his mother returns to the U.S., leaving Spillman with his father, who raises him with the same quiet compassion readers can enjoy throughout the book. “Living for art” means very different things to Elissa and Spillman when they arrive in a small town in Portugal: Elissa finds her writing rhythm almost immediately while Spillman wanders, literally and figuratively, in search of his story. They drive to a crumbling Roman ruin, where a sign reads: Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos(Our bones are here waiting for your bones). Something is waiting for him, he knows this, and while the beginning and middle elude him, the ending is starkly clear: Berlin. No matter what happens, what he writes, what Elissa feels, and how much absinthe they consume, they must end up in Berlin. Art and creativity first brought his father there at a time when Americans were not welcome in the rest of Germany; and now it must bring a grown-up Spillman back to Berlin as its “long lost native son.”
Spillman’s chapters zig-zag through German and English; past and present: outgrowing summer camp in Aspen; driving around Portugal with Elissa and Hank, their close friend; enduring high school in Baltimore while living with his mother; driving into Berlin for the first time in years months before the Wall is to be torn down. The early chapters are short and fast-paced; readers have to bend through short doorways at a Berlin rave, then eavesdrop on the chatter at Joe’s Bar in the East Village, then board a German subway to gossip with Spillman’s father in German, and then clamber into a beat up car in Zambujeira in Portugal. Spillman uses these events to introduce relationships long-defined for him, but new to the reader—Spillman’s love for Elissa; his admiration for his parents. The reader, in turn, enjoys becoming familiar with Elissa’s energy; Mom’s tight-lipped parenting style; Dad’s wit. By the time Spillman shares the how-we-met story and the reader meets “shock of white hair” Elissa on an Amtrak train in Penn Station, the impact is lost. Amtrak Elissa is a curiosity, sure, but running-with-the-bulls Elissa and furnishing-an-East-Berlin-apartment Elissa and meeting-Spillman’s-father’s-old-friend Elissa are much more interesting. Does Spillman need to bring the story full circle with these connectors?
There is another aspect of Spillman that may answer this question: Spillman is a runner. A nervous high school freshman at Boys Latin private school in Baltimore, he tries to connect through the universal language of sport, but fails:
“I clung to my German soccer-playing skills, but this was a different sport, a different country. Out on the field no one cared that I considered myself a Berliner. The next day I joined the cross-country team. The lowest of the low, the last refuge for the unathletic, the geeks, and all the other losers, where I belonged.”
‘Refuge’ is the right word for Spillman, who finds refuge for the rest of the book in his long-distance, unforgiving, uphill, lose-yourself runs. He and his father factor running into their cross-country drives every summer. He spends hours running after graduating high school and not going to college, while working at a gas station. He runs all over Europe. Once in Berlin, he runs frantically, looking for holes in the soon-to-be-torn-down Wall. He runs when his wife suffers some sort of seizure. On every run, Spillman retreats into himself, aligning his heart with his feet and concentrating only on the next thump. Psychologists have long written about the relationship between running and memory, and Spillman’s physical detours throughout the book are as deliberate as his chapter jumps between then and now. All Tomorrow’s Parties is not a story guided by time and geography alone, but by instinct and memory, where the body may know how to respond before the mind does. Early in the book—which, in real life, is towards the end of the story—when Spillman and Elissa stumble upon a rave happening in a closed-off subway station underneath the Wall, “literally between countries, under two countries,” he writes:
“I close my eyes and let the concussive bass vibrate through my body. I can feel the beat of my heart aligning with the beat of the music. I’m dissolving, breaking into a million parties. I am nowhere. I am home.”
Like Spillman’s penchant for “artful and irreverent” writing, All Tomorrow’s Parties is an artful and irreverent memoir. There is nothing self-indulgent about this struggling artist on a quest. Rather, Spillman shares an unusual immigrant story—of a white boy born to American parents; an unusual German story—not of the Holocaust, but of the Cold War; and an unusual love story that takes driving (and running) across a continent to find its way back home. These pages are proof that Spillman has filled his father’s footsteps to live for art.