If, as a parent, you are very lucky, or freakishly self-possessed, you understand from the get-go that the object of the game is to love your children exactly as they are. For the rest of us--that is to say, for anyone who has experienced adversity, disappointment, shame, loneliness, boredom, insecurity, rage, or vanity on the way to reaching the reproductive age--parenting is often akin to that 12-steppers' exercise where you pray for your enemies.
This universal, near impossible-to-articulate experience has spawned a genre of trenchant, witty literature by unflinching, self-deprecating mothers, most notably Anne Lamott, Ariel Gore, and the editors of the quarterly bible of older-chick-with-stretchmarks lit, Brain, Child magazine. To that list, add Minneapolis native and Minnesota Monthly staffer Ann Bauer and her debut novel, A Wild Ride up the Cupboards.
Most simply, Wild Ride is about a mother who struggles to raise a child with a confounding, nameless disability that keeps him curtained off from his loved ones. But it's also about a troubled, disarmingly true marriage, a loving family that can't name even its long-dead ghosts, a friendship that falters after decades of fealty. Ultimately, it's about a driven, talented, flawed woman, who, in the process of loving her baffling child, becomes a better person.
The mother at the center of the story is Rachel, who marries young, to a laconic, 6'6" giant who adores her and the three children they conceive in quick succession. Jack isn't very good at making money, and the couple is barely holding it together when precocious four-year-old Edward more or less disappears into himself. The severity of the tragedy becomes clear in a painful scene in which Edward gets kicked out of story hour by a nasty librarian.
"If only she knew," Bauer writes. "For three days, he had not spoken. Not one word. He was round-cheeked and golden-haired but sometimes his whole face looked dead. He'd chewed holes in some of his clothes. Overnight, he would no longer let me hug him. The day before, I'd found him on his bed holding one hand in front of his eyes and turning it slowly."
A parade of experts fails to diagnose Edward's troubles; each hard-won appointment ends with a shrug and the opinion that Edward isn't autistic, but it's probably best to label and treat him as if he were. Desperation leads the couple to take chances, some of which prove terribly costly to the family. Whether the payoff is worthwhile is something readers, like mothers, will have to conclude for themselves.
By the end of the story Jack and Rachel, still only tenuously perched in middle-class adulthood, have come to see Edward's alternate reality as more wonderland than disability. There's a disarming scene in which the family attends a funeral and Edward positions himself next to the casket, greeting mourners. He grabs a cane away from one and balances it on his head. Bauer writes: "'He's Puck,' Jack had whispered to me just the month before in a moment much like this one. 'He's just not like the rest of us. He's here to stir up trouble and make the world a little less real.'"
That there are many similarities between Rachel and author Bauer is hardly surprising, given that Wild Ride started as memoir. Like Rachel, Bauer is the mother of three, including a son who perplexed parents and doctors alike by slipping into what Bauer describes as "an autistiform stage," but who returned, Puckishly, to continue teaching his mother about grace. But the novel's twists of fate are products of Bauer's imagination, as is Edward. "This child is not him," Bauer says of her son. "We did not do these things. But we were desperate enough to do these things. And I thought, what if I was desperate enough to do absolutely anything?"
Bauer recounts the relevant portions of her story--that is, those that compose the back story for Wild Ride--over tea and a composed salad at Bakery on Grand, noting ruefully that, as Minnesota Monthly's restaurant reviewer, she's usually the one taking notes over a bite to eat. (Bauer's food-writing duties are best performed anonymously, which is why this article is not accompanied by her portrait.) Short and slender, she has a halo of curly brown hair and an aura of intense energy. So much so that after she'd been at Minnesota Monthly a few months, her officemates politely asked her to work from home a couple of days a week--a story she's quite capable of laughing at.
In May of 2002, Bauer graduated from the University of Iowa with an MFA in creative writing. A prestigious degree, but for the newly single parent, no meal ticket. Bauer landed a job teaching gifted high school students at a summer program in Rhode Island. She loved New England, and "walked into Brown at exactly the right time" to land a one-year teaching job. "It paid barely enough for us to live," she says. "But it was this place that felt nutritive in terms of writing.... I had a full-time office with support staff and that's where I sat and turned my very thin MFA thesis into a novel."
Her family was miserable, however. "My kids went from Iowa City to a place where they had to drive everywhere, and a tiny rental," she continues. "I was making $32,000. The schools were not for us--very punitive, very traditional. I'd go in to work every day and love it, but I'd come home every day to sad, lonely kids."
At the end of the year when Brown offered to renew her contract, she declined. "I came back [to Minneapolis] humbled like you wouldn't believe, with an unfinished novel, no job, nothing, and moved back in with my parents," she says. "My mother is a mathematician and my father an economist, and the fact that I'm a writer has always just blown their minds."
They rallied around her, though, insisting she finish her novel. "They said, 'If you're going to do this, you're going to do it. We're going to treat this like a six-week residency. We'll take care of you. We'll take care of your kids.' My dad even gave me a deadline."
Bauer started writing every morning at 6:00. "I would go to a coffeehouse and write for exactly two hours. I would have the same coffee, the same routine. I'd even face the same way every day." (The food-writer's coffee drink? "A triple--as in three long shots--Americano. I'm addicted. When the espresso is made right, tightly packed and dripped slow, they're so thick they're almost chocolatey.")
By the time she was done, she was so broke she couldn't copy her final manuscript. Her agent--a young, untested Englishman who had contacted Bauer after happening upon her work online--let her e-mail it. What little money Bauer had coming in was for writing freelance articles for Minnesota Monthly. "In September--I remember it was the last day of the fair--[editor Jeff Johnson] called. I had just bought a house, a tiny, tiny house. He called and said, 'We like what you're doing. Would you like to come work here?' And I said yes. No interview, no nothing."
After a grueling revision, Scribner bought Wild Ride in March of '04. Fast-forward a year and a half and Bauer is looking at a full schedule of readings, book signings, and interviews. She guards the privacy of her children, 17, 15, and 11, zealously, explaining that they didn't choose to have a writer for a mother. "When you're a teenager your business is to be focused on you, not on your mom." But of the 17-year-old not-Edward whose otherworldly prism was the catalyst for the story, she will say this much: He has pronounced the novel "an interesting translation of our reality" and, brand-new driver's license in hand, ferries his mother to interviews.
Has he helped to deliver Bauer a little from the parts of her personality she has described as "driven and relentless"? "And this is where fiction comes in," Bauer wrote in an essay published by Salon in July. "Because in the book, my narrator reaches the same frenzied peak I did, but then she softens and somehow heals herself. There is an end, a point at which she is, finally, nearly as quiet and forgiving and gentle as the child. In life, however, I must keep learning his lessons over and over again."
And that, of course, is the best that any of us can hope for.