Book Review: Between Panic and Desire by Dinty W. Moore

With subtle wit and outright humor, Dinty W. Moore takes the reader on a journey like no other in his latest memoir, Between Panic and Desire (2008 – University of Nebraska Press).

From the outset it is clear that our author, a seasoned writer of creative nonfiction, is on a quest of discovery, understanding and forgiveness. His style of writing is engaging and the structure, intriguing in this fast-paced, quirky memoir that is deadly serious.

Dinty invites the reader to come along and we settle in quickly. Comfortable in our leather-upholstered bucket seat, we sit back and relax, preparing to take in the sights. Then suddenly the author’s overarching dilemma appears and we are jolted. What is this? We wonder. Still, we stay calm. We have fastened our seat belts.

“I just bask in the unknown for a while, alone on the road, halfway between Panic and Desire.” [two small towns in central Pennsylvania] “Until it occurs to me: I have been here all of my life.”

This passage from the Prologue of Dinty Moore’s 141-page memoir sets the stage for this collection of 18 essays, interviews and stories as well as two quizzes (just for fun). A wide variety of formats are bolted, soldered and rigged together cleverly so as to reveal the life and personal struggles of our narrator in an uncanny way. In the end we learn that our author is not only a writer, but also an editor, speaker, mentor, husband, colleague, photographer and protector of all animals – great and small.

We roll into Chapter One: Hello, My Name Is, with great expectations. It is the perfect start. Dinty’s name, after all, catches one’s attention. Within this book it seems certain that we will come to know the answer to the often thought, sometimes-posed question: How did you get your name? We take off, hopeful that our curiosity will be satisfied and the answer finally and eternally put to rest.

No. The question is not answered. Not here. Not quite yet.

Intrigued and still comfortable, we continue on, kicking back to make our way through the next few chapters. Up, down and around we go through the narrative like riders on the last seat of the Jack Rabbit roller coaster at Pittsburgh’s Kennywood Park. The story zigs and then zags. We struggle to stay in our seat, trying not to move beyond the safety bar. What is this? We ask. Something is amiss. This is not how a book goes. There is a new approach to each chapter, lurking around every bend. Is this perhaps a prose comic book? We wonder. And we continue on, our question held tightly in our sweaty palms. When we finally catch our breath, relaxing again with the aid of humor, we do not rest long. We are not easily fooled. There is a lot going on here. Then, just as we think that we are going to be allowed to plant our feet firmly on steady ground again, we are off and quickly smashed by yet another bend in the track. We are thrown on our side. We know now, with certainly, that this is no simple little ride that we are on.

Then when the narrative straightens a bit and we go on into shared historical events, the familiar is calming. At last, some facts that we know. Then suddenly there is a new twist. Our author combines his personal life with political events of the time and we come out laughing. It happens at the top of the hill when our author floats out the Boomer question: Where was Dinty William Moore when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated? This question is often asked: Where were you? and readily answered by those over the age of 50. Our author, as it turned out, was where most Boomer kids were then, in school. But that’s not all. Dinty remembers more. He remembers where he was when he revealed who had done it. That is: who shot JFK? Dinty’s conclusion: “Richard Nixon.” He spilled the beans to the guy standing next to him in the line for the lavatory.

Few have connected these dots so quickly.

Like the murder he solved in elementary school, Dinty’s quick mind and dry humor are used to solve, or rather, help the reader to solve, several other mysteries littered over the following chapters. It is not a clean and neat process. Like the chapters before, these are not stacked, one on top of the other, as in regular books. Rather, we fall into a cauldron of facts, rise to new heights of awareness, and shoot through feelings and fights to discover new shapes, forms and ways of understanding. Like a child’s building that is constructed from an Erector set, something is askew. Our ability to balance is put to the test.

Who is this man, Dinty Moore, and what is this collection of stories about?

Much of the background of the collection of essays is set in the raucous Baby Boomers’ time of experimentation, radicalism, and angst. But as a child, in the early years of television, he studied the characters and scenes of regular programming to learn about life. The result: a mosaic essay, Son of Mr. Green Jeans – a Meditation on Missing Fathers, where we read of our author’s search for the ideal dad. On television, fathers were seemingly plentiful, loving and approachable. Each one was perfect. They dressed nicely, acted politely and were always there when needed. Dinty’s life experience did not match these images, however. What is wrong with this picture? Dinty asks.

Dinty and the reader are now on this quest together, forging on through this story, we will not be defeated. We follow him as he trudges through feelings of unrest in search of answers. Then, finally we learn that he finds his path, and begins studying, experimenting and writing.

His launch into writing began, he recalls, came while on a helicopter ride home from covering the story of a major flood in Johnstown, Pa., as a journalist. He tells us, “The thwack of the rotors and the rushing air transported me. I wasn’t the lost and lonely boy-reporter. I was a gunner in Vietnam. Rat a tat. Rat a tat. The trees were filled with evil people trying hard to bring me down.”

With his fear and desire exposed, Dinty breaks open with all-out humor.

At the beginning of the second section: Paranoia, we are treated to a conversation between the author and a telephone psychic who happens to be a member of a prominent political family. Using this journalistic Q&A format, we learn what lies in the future for our author.

“You are not done screwing up,” the psychic hotline lady tells Dinty. The response is sad, but most likely a freeing moment.

What the psychic does not reveal is the origin of our author’s name.

Ignoring the elephant in the room, we move on and read about the 1960’s drug and music culture including the Beatles. Here Dinty provides insights into the study of patterns – recurring links, information, and formations in nature. He focuses on the attributes of the number 9. “Musicologists joke about a ‘ninth symphony syndrome’.” He tells us of Beethoven, Schubert and Dvorak – all who suffered at the hands of this number. Nine, we learn, is to be taken seriously.

Before we receive our quiz at the end of this section, we learn how the author moved from writing as a journalist, to film making, then grant writing, in the chapter entitled: 1984, a reference to George Orwell’s famed book of the same name that Boomers held onto, in anticipation of just what would happen that year. Our author makes note of his growing desire to write about the thoughts and ideas swimming in his head. “Desire began to overtake panic, an odd feeling indeed.” Fast forward 10, or maybe 40 years and Dinty, as an adult, is now an accomplished writer in several genres and is revered in many, if not all 48 states, Alaska and Hawaii. He is an esteemed professor and a beloved family man. What happened in between is a fun, funny, thought-provoking and very human story.

Finally! In Chapter 13: Son of George McManus, we learn the origins of our author’s name.

Dinty Moore, most often associated with a canned food product, is actually a character in the popular 1913 comic strip, Bringing Up Father. Not just any character, Dinty Moore is a particular type, essential to the comic strip’s narrative and now also, in the life story of our author and main character in his memoir, Dinty William Moore.

With the question about Dinty Moore’s name finally put to rest, our author is now fully exposed to the audience and allows for more probing. The format here: an autopsy report.

By dissecting his character in an autopsy, the author reveals his physical, psychological and emotional states of being. Through details such as his height, weight (actually he does not reveal this), hair, heart and more, he provides the reader with clues. It is now up to the reader. The reader must suture the truth together. But we are not abandoned. Footnotes are provided to help us, providing us with further details and sometimes, the punch line of a joke. A drawing of the author’s character, his body, is included as a visual aide. We finally discover how the two sides of Dinty W. Moore, Panic and Desire, fit together. The sketch is a self-portrait and, perhaps, the author’s debut into his next career: illustration.

Chapter 19: “Curtis Knows Best” – Towering, Permanent, Perilous, and Soon to be Televised on a Widescreen Near You is perhaps the most disheartening experience in our author’s life. He wanted to be a writer, became one and was invited to appear on National Public Radio’s (NPR) program, Fresh Air, with host, Terry Gross to talk about it. In an essay following the interview, author Curtis White analyzes the program in Harper’s Magazine. Our author’s 15 minutes of fame is put to death or, at least muted. The article was not complimentary – of the show or its guest. The result? Using White’s article along with pieces from an interview with a founding member of the rock group KISS, Dinty confronts the author’s allegations, tongue-in-cheek, in an imaginary television docudrama he entitles: Curtis Knows Best. At the end of the play, Oprah Winfrey announces that everyone has won a car and, as in all good American dramas, everyone lives happily ever after.

In the final chapter of Dinty’s book entitled: The Final Chapter, our author recalls the last time he encountered his father. Through the exchange we learn about our author’s new look at life and all that he has worked to overcome.

But the story, the ride that we have been on, does not end here.

The final two sections: Index and About the Author provide additional important information, insights and clues. Please read before unbuckling your seat belt. You will be rewarded!


Filed under: Book Review, Prose