The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship

Image of The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship
Release Date: 
January 18, 2016
Graywolf Press
Reviewed by: 

A memoir is a tricky thing. An art form that is often more interested in Truth than it is in facts. A work in which reality is posted through the filter of self. In which timelines are meant to be broken. And in which all memories, old hurts in particular, swim just below the surface.

Novelist Paul Lisicky’s new memoir, The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship, contains all these aspects of creative remembrance; it twists and turns its way rather mercilessly from the late ’60s (when singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, who has, for some reason, been shoehorned into the narrative—having nothing whatsoever to do with the tale told other than the fact that the narrator seems rather fixated with her music—is pissed at having been left behind by Judy Collins, who promised her a ride to a music festival, but went on ahead without her) to 2010, when Lisicky was faced not only with the death of his dear friend, novelist Denise Gess, but also with the end of a long-term love relationship as well.

By far, the more successful sections of the book are those exploring Lisicky’s friendship with Gess. Although the memories presented add up to something far different from any sort of tribute. Instead, The Narrow Door is Paul Lisicky’s dissection of their relationship, and Gess is recreated in these pages as more or less a fully-fleshed human being, flawed—at times deeply angry and/or jealous—fearful, even petty, while still being wildly creative, laughter-filled, and eternally loyal.

She also, like Lisicky himself, is beset with “man trouble.”


“She holds up the cover of the issue of Time on which he appears in a red T-shirt under a tan blazer. His face looks tired, gruff, unshaven, hurt, horny. It’s the face of someone who thinks his suffering is more meaningful than yours. I like his books, especially the one in which the son loses his eye on the stick shift, but I’m troubled by his hold on her. It might be the case that Denise wants to be him more than she wants to be with him, but I believe she’ll figure that out in due time.

“I wish she’d stop. I wish she’d talk again about Franny and Zooey or Good Deeds or the professors and TAs and any of the other grad students we know in common. Instead, she’s filling up the space with Famous Writer—or, more precisely, Famous Writing. She is going on for hours with it. My eyes are grainy, my tongue thick with listening to her. And yet there’s a high buzz of excitement in the air. Outside, on the sidewalk, is Philadelphia—hear the four Archbishop Wood students cursing at some drunken girl across the street? But inside? We are characters in an Almodovar film yet to be made. Coffee makes sluicing sounds inside the coffee maker. A cigarette burns in the ashtray socket. Joni’s ‘Wild Things Run Fast’ is playing on her cassette deck. And now we’re sitting together on the sofa at 1 a.m. on a Saturday night, waiting for the damn kitchen phone to ring.

“Just like that, it does ring.

“Denise leaps. She looks at me, lets the phone right one more time before she picks it up. And as hello comes out of her mouth, a dial tone.


“We stay in our respective positions until the process repeats itself all over again. Another hang-up, then another.

“’You think it’s him?’ I say, a little wary.

“’Of course it’s him,’ she says, her smile getting bigger . . .”

This brief passage contains all that is best in The Narrow Door. Brief glints of humor. Casual descriptions that bring the world alive. And details so telling that they send the reader into a tizzy: “the face of someone who thinks his suffering is more meaningful than yours.”

That’s worthy of etching in stone.

And had the author chosen to keep his focus tight on writing about his friend and his relationship with her, The Narrow Door would likely have been a superb creation.

But Lisicky has other tales to tell. Specifically about his relationship with a Famous Poet (whose identity is no better hidden than is old Garp’s himself, making the reader wonder why the twee evasions) and how that relationship came to a sad end.

Throughout Door, we are told oh, so, very much about Famous Poet, the man with whom Lisicky shared his life for a period of thirteen or fourteen years. But note that here in the memoir, he is referred to only as “M,” as if the broken narrative has suddenly jumped backward into the Victorian era and our memoirist is sitting behind a splendid long mahogany table writing this whole thing in ink while staring out the window at the drifting snow.

“M,” by the way, is a dreadful guy. Toxic. Self-absorbed, as only those who hold the financial strings in a relationship can be. “M’s” the sort who, when he sees an icky rash on Lisicky’s chest reacts like this:

“’Look,’ I say to M an hour later. We’re standing in the living room. At Roger and Jill’s next door, someone is working a power saw. A mist of ripped wood is clouding the view beyond the fence. The sky looks like rain. I pull up my shirt to show him my torso.

“’Ouch’ he says, wincing. ‘Sweetheart. Ouch.’ He reaches out with his hand to touch—I know he wants to make it better—before he pulls back. ‘I’m sorry. What is it?’

“’Shingles,’ I say.

“’Shingles? What makes you say that?’

“I walk over to the open laptop, where I show him the results of my research. The faces in the images look miserable; it’s as if each of them has been exposed to a chemical blast. . . .”

After making a suggestion that Lisicky needs to go to a doctor, “Dr. Steve,” to be specific, there’s this:

“’If you’re sick,’ he says, minutes later, ‘I don’t think I’m going to be strong enough to take care of you.’”

It’s a sucker punch of a moment and one that our author places dead center in his memoir.

Lisicky continues:

“M’s voice is quiet now, thick with suppressed tears in his throat. Then he starts to cry. But sick, he means HIV-sick. It hadn’t even occurred to me that shingles could be a sign of HIV. In three months I’ll find out from Dr. Steve that I’ve tested negative, but right now I want to say, you could take care of me, I promise. I wouldn’t be that much work.”

Just the presence of such a memory practically guarantees that readers will all place themselves firmly on Team Lisicky when the break-up happens. And makes the narrative seem a bit like a stacked deck, emotionally speaking.

And the relationship itself, as spelled out here, seems all kiss-kiss, bang-bang, with never a moment quiet resignation that is, after all, the hallmark of most relationships.

And then there’s the “M” itself, that damn “M,” why only the “M?” Why this device? Whatever does it accomplish that giving the man’s name could not? 

Each time I come across it, I react the same way and, just for the briefest of moments, wonder why Judy Dench should be treating Paul Lisicky in such a cruel and demeaning manner.

The George-and-Martha-sad-sad-sad of it all seems to go on for way too many pages, especially after “M” meets “S” and breaks things off with our author.

But when the two are breaking up after such a long time, the tone is suddenly beautifully elegiac as Lisicky considers his husband:

“My protector. My protected. My badge. My torch. My fugitive. My furnace. My doorway. My duty. My desert. My daystar. My well. My harbor. My wave. My promontory. My marshland. My dune. My plainsong. My psalm. My fascicle. My dictionary. My archive. My tower. My giant. My thunderclap. My spine. My rivering. My sprawl. My signet. My scarf. My fly-by-night. My bankruptcy. My secrecy. My greening. My saltwater. My howling. My yellow room.”

This vibrant moment. This distillation of the entirety of the emotional glob that is a break-up at once shows the best and worst that The Narrow Door has to offer. Daystar? Fascicle? A bit much, perhaps. But the bankruptcy, the signet and the duty, the howling and the secrecy are splendid, and about them nothing more needs to be said.

But is it churlish to note that only one, only marshland, actually begins with the letter “M?”

Or to say that in virtually every encounter between our author and “M” there are tears, suppressed tears, open wailings, or single strands of moisture tracking down ruddy cheeks?  So much so that the reader is tempted to begin a drinking game—a shot for every sob.

Or to mention that far more tears are shed over a divorce then are reportedly shed over an actual death?

At times pretentious, at others self-aggrandizing, while also very often supremely well written, Paul Lisicky’s new memoir The Narrow Door sort of flings itself at you all at once, most especially when the author reveals the reason for the title.

At the end of the memoir, in a chapter that shares a title with the book, there’s this:

“Only an hour ago, at nine o’clock mass, the priest uttered these words as part of the intercessions, the only words I remember from those fifty minutes: You lead us to salvation through the narrow door.

Which, throughout blustery break-ups, betrayals, and deaths at the end of long suffering, seeks to give us a bit of hope, perhaps, by reporting that such a door—however narrow—actually exists, and that salvation, perhaps in the way of life after death or forgiveness after betrayal, is actually possible.