Memoir’s a tough genre. For memoir to appeal to a broad audience its got to succeed in one of two ways.
Either the voice asserts some irresistible quality: rich, engaging, dynamic, inspiring, insightful without being pedantic. Or the narrative relates circumstances of an extraordinary nature: the subject is a half-Kenyan young lawyer who rises to become the U.S. President; a soccer team survives a plane crash in the Andes by feeding on fellow passengers; a scientist’s submarine catches fire at the exact moment she discovers a new species capable of saving the planet.
So much the better if the voice and the sublime work in cahoots.
But in memoir where these traits are lacking altogether, we wind up with a book like Devon James Hoffman’s Wild Enough to Get to You. The narrative voice tends toward the abstruse, and the undertaking is a well-traveled road.
As a memoirist Hoffman’s first order of business is to bring clarity and coherence to his experience. He explains his efforts this way: “You may be disappointed to find that this book isn’t about my service but is, instead, about what my service was about.” The stories, he tells us, “may seem disconnected and eclectic, but they are my memoir. This book achieves its unity by following the journey of my changing paradigm, instead of my physical body.”
I understand that Hoffman isn’t pursuing a “traditional” Peace Corps memoir. Rather he’s written a memoir of personal evolution that happens to include 27 months of Peace Corps service in the Philippines. Perhaps he didn’t intend to appeal to a broad audience after all, but rather to retain his experience in some final book form. The result is a product that’s more published journal than memoir.
Hoffman’s work is creative, divergent from usual categorization: not entirely memoir, not entirely fiction. It is, essentially, a journal—polished somewhat to remove the woes of immediacy and organized to achieve some higher unity. The journal includes photos and illustrations of varied quality and a narrative of discovery that might be useful to those in search of their next step, of themselves, of America.
And Hoffman does hint at some truth about service: “A lot of folks told me I was going to suffer reverse culture shock when I returned from the Philippines.”
A lot of people are right. The big secret of the Peace Corps isn’t that integrating with a foreign community is difficult. It’s that re-integrating into the home culture afterwards is even more difficult. The return is about trading the bandana coffee filter for a triple latte mumbo-jumbo Venti from Starbucks; about trading single-track goat paths through the bush for 10-lane concrete highways arcing through the sky; about trading one’s exposed perch at the edge of the world for the relative comfort and anonymity of standing in the middle of the pack at home.
Hoffman’s attempt at resettling includes setting off again—this time across America:
To ease my transition I decided to travel through America before I settled back into my hometown of Albuquerque. To help me understand my country even more, I also planned to write about the people I’d visit, and how each related to the places they lived…
I devised a frame for what might otherwise be formless, mumbling travelogue: a chain story…Thus, I present my travelogue, which is actually a series of footnotes to a far more important story, written by the collective minds of my generation. (See Appendix 1 for the full story, without footnotes.)
The idea makes sense, but it’s far from extraordinary. And the manner of telling is far from accessible. It’s unwieldy, esoteric, and puzzling.
Originally published at Peace Corps Worldwide