All the Wrong Places by Philip Connors

All the Wrong Places is Philip Connors’s memoir of his early twenties in NYC and his struggles to understand/come to terms with his younger brother having taken his own life. Though he says he and his brother “weren’t close” as young adults, they were “an insesparable pair” in early childhood on their family’s farm in Minnesota: “coconspirators unmindful of language, at home in the out of doors, amid the smells of sloughs and mud and skunks and manure.” Connors says he then “became a reader, asthmatic and sensitive, squeamish around farm animals, more comfortable baking cookies than baling hay,” so when the family had to give up the farm when Connors was twelve, it relieved him of the expectation of following in their dad’s footsteps. Of his path and his brother Dan’s path, he says this: “No one was surprised when I went away to college and he chose the path of blue-collar work.”

Connors writes about having just arrived in New York City for an internship at the Nation, then getting a call from his dad saying that Dan was dead. The internship is postponed; Connors goes to Minnesota then back to Montana. He eventually lands back in NYC, where he gets a job at the Wall Street Journal (though he disagrees with the paper’s politics) and a room in an apartment in Bed-Stuy (which seems better than cat-sitting four cats in Hell’s Kitchen). I really liked all of Connors’s WSJ stories and NYC stories—his story about writing a piece about a guy who “has made it his life’s goal to eat at as many McDonald’s restaurants as possible,”, his story about seeing Al Sharpton speak after the cops who murdered Amadou Diallo were acquitted, his stories about an amateur phone sex line he used to call. I like descriptive passages like this, when he’s talking about how he was seeing a girl who lived in Virginia and would take the train to visit her: “I soon became familiar with the long train ride to Charlottesville, the halting, slowly accelerating departure, newspapers and books shielding faces, drinks in the jolly bar car. Strange intimacies with strangers, the proffered stories and the swiveled glances. The endless telephone poles and the scalloped pattern of their lines, rising and falling, rising and falling out the windows. The filthy ditches and the piles of gravel and the scrap-metal heaps. Long lengths of gleaming metal pipes stacked in pyramid form. Featureless glass office towers, low-slung factories abandoned to rot. Brick bungalows and back yard swings. The huge neon sign on the Delaware River Bridge, part boast, part lament: TRENTON MAKES—THE WORLD TAKES.”

And oh: Connors writes about 9/11, about making his way from Queens to the WSJ offices the day it happened. Through everything, there is the memory of Dan, and the questions Connors has about his death—why he did it, what his last moments were like, if Dan would still be alive if Connors had returned his phone call that one time a few months prior. Connors keeps a commonplace book with quotes about suicide; he thinks of Dan as having “revealed the secret passageway off to the side of the life we all led.” He eventually travels to New Mexico, where Dan lived and died, to see his autopsy report and photos, and to see the police photos of the scene of his death, and to talk to his ex-fiancée and her parents (her dad was Dan’s boss and friend, and was the person who found Dan’s body). And then he ends up in New Mexico himself, leaving NYC to take a gig as a fire lookout and falling in love with the forest/mountain landscape.

I’d been meaning to read this book since I borrowed it from my mom several Christmases ago and am glad I finally got around to it. I particularly liked the NYC portions of it, but I also appreciate the way Connors writes with delicacy about his brother’s story and with frankness about his own.






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