Book Review: Jim Neat by Mary J. Oliver

Book Review: Jim Neat by Mary J. Oliver

Reviewed by Linda Camidge and John Pestle

Linda Camidge writes: From the insistent and unsettling gaze on the front cover, to the ending that leaves you wanting more, this fascinating and compelling book is one of those reading experiences that lodges inside your head, and simply refuses to move over.

Mary J Oliver has explored and reconstructed the life of her father, born in 1904, who embodies elements of W H Davies, pre-figures the Beat generation and reads Conrad. He emerges as a strangely innocent man, torn by dreams, hopes and memories of love, and  – through all his wanderings across continents, his arrivals and departures – always searching for home.

He refuses to occupy the past tense.

Oliver describes the book as “a long narrative poem” but there are also strong elements of memoir, biography and even multi-media drama in the mix. The long historical span covers the Great Depression, WW2 and finally spills over into Oliver’s 21st century search. She presents her father in a powerful and unsettling mixture: poetry and documents, constructed letters and photographs, real-life conversations during her search for the (or perhaps ‘a’) truth.  Her intention: “to make a small work of art out of an ordinary man’s extraordinary life.”  And yes, this is a fairly short (and beautifully produced) book. But in its impact and scope, very far from smallness.

John Pestle writes: Described by the author as a long narrative poem, it could also be called a biography as art and as I read it I jotted down the vast range of characters, experiences and emotions covered in the twists and turns of the story; childhood, romance and lost love, tramping, deprivation, drug addiction, travel, mental illness and treatment, heartbreak, war, child abuse, shop lifting, a one-legged ice-skater, a mute, some violence and visions. I’m sure I haven’t been able to capture everything but the essence of this tale is the desire to record Jim’s life and the search for the author’s half sister which involved going over some of the ground covered by Jim’s wandering life.

His hobo existence in Canada reminded me of W H Davies and his book The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp and I looked for some overlap but found that his book was published in 1908 which means his tramping days were well over by the time of Jim’s travels. There is, however, a slight link in that when Mary visits Lola, the daughter of Jim’s sister Queenie in Ottawa, she discovers a copy of Davies’s book in her late husband’s study. Surely not a coincidence? This small book is a big read.