The Short Version: After a car accident and a botched surgical procedure, Clay Byars is told he may be paralyzed from the eyes down for the rest of his life. He fights back, making an unexpected recovery, but his life is forever altered. As his life and his twin brother’s diverge, Clay must find what it means to live anew in the face of overwhelming adversity.
The Review: Most recovery memoirs, particularly those that deal with a catastrophic injury, often conclude with a rousing affirmation of humanity’s indomitable spirit. They are about the thing that resides in all of us that, if we put our faith in it, can help us through even the darkest of times. And Clay Byars’ memoir Will & I has some of that – but this book was not, to me, so much about recovery as it was discovery: the discovery, by the writer, of the writer’s voice.
Clay’s story is presented clearly and without much ornamentation very early on: after a horrible car accident that puts him in the hospital, he’s given a new procedure that will attempt to graft some nerves into his shoulder so that he can regain full mobility. An accident during that surgery – a nicked, even if swiftly closed, artery – causes a blood clot and a stroke a short while later and leaves Clay paralyzed from the eyes down. His body begins to rebuild but its clear that his life will never be the same again. All the while, his twin brother continues to live the life that they both would’ve been living, had the accident not happened.
Clay doesn’t really ask for any pity, nor does he write in a way that really seeks to provoke it, as many similar recovery memoirs might. His writing is clear and smooth, like a piece of sanded (but not polished) wood. There’s a seriousness to it, even in the humor; he writes with a maturity and honesty that feels immediately comfortable. The book features a blurb from John Jeremiah Sullivan and the influence is clear: Clay has some of the same crispness of prose as Sullivan and, in an interview I did with him for the FSG Originals website (stay tuned for that next week!), he mentioned that he worked on the book with Sullivan’s input and mentoring while it was in manuscript.
The one thing that I found most remarkable about Will & I was the way that every question I had, every thought that I marked for further consideration, was followed up on later in the book. There are moments early on when the reader will wonder about whether or not Clay has tried writing fiction – and, sure enough, an answer arrives later on. The shifting timeline, rolling back through time before swinging again to the present, often overlapping or filling in blanks in the process, made me write down a note that says “time/altered sense of it?” and I was delighted to find Clay talking about exactly that – a changed sense of time and the way it moves – only a short while later. He has a canny grasp of what a reader will not only need but want to understand, but also the narrative skill to keep you hooked while you’re waiting for an answer. Or, perhaps not an answer – which implies a question left open – but rather just more information, a deeper examination of thing lightly touched upon in the early going.
I also deeply enjoyed Clay’s intellectual rigor throughout. He delves into some philosophy and theory stuff here and there, but he also takes a brief turn into explaining the various science (and the massive gaping knowledge holes) around twins – the different types, the different genetic reasons behind them, even the old trope of psychic communication between twins (something that he and Will experience throughout). And, as he starts taking singing lessons to help rebuild and restrengthen his vocal chords, he writes brilliantly about the way that our vocal chords work and how he notices his own changing over the course of his years of lessons. It’s sometimes little things – just tossed off sentences and explanations – that buoy the whole work, providing that extra bit of background information that elevates the work into something special.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The title is deceptive: the book isn’t so much about Will and Clay as it is about Clay. But Will is always at least in the background, even when he isn’t there – because the two are twins. And because Clay has an opportunity to see, in Will, what his life could’ve been, providing a more honest point of comparison to not only see “what could have been” but also how much he himself has grown and changed since the accident. It’s a skillful debut and Byars has a voice that’s easy-going and yet immediately trustworthy, like a good newscaster. I look forward to seeing what he writes next.