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Review of Don Snyder’s “The Cliff Walk: A Memoir of a Job Lost and a Life Found”

Newsday, April 27, 1997

The Cliff Walk book cover

It is an increasingly familiar story: the hard-working, well-educated guy who claws his way to the middle class only to be tossed out into the yawning abyss of post-industrial America. Horatio Alger in reverse, this literary genre – you might call it the anti-Bildungsroman — owes its existence to the twin demons of postmodern America: therapy and the service economy. In Don Snyder’s memoir, “The Cliff Walk,” we encounter the form at its most poignant: a 40-year-old English professor whose pregnant wife and three children are imperiled when his contract isn’t renewed.

Snyder is a member of the generation of baby boomers who aren’t going to have more prosperous lives than their parents; owning a house and supporting a family on a modest income is no longer possible, even for those who were taught to expect it. “We all came of age when America was under a new coat of paint, in the midst of her magic trick when she could still pull the rabbit out of the hat,” Snyder writes. “Lately, the magician has slowed down and you can see the little trap doors and hinges in her act. Maybe this accounts for why the disillusionment is spreading into the middle class, not because the disillusionment is rising but because people like me are finally falling. Falling hard.”

But before attaining a semblance of peace in the face of his dilemma, Snyder endures epic bouts of denial and self-loathing, a full-blown midlife crisis so severe it nearly destroys his family. He burns his books, applies for 21 teaching jobs, works at a golf course, considers selling his next child in an adoption scheme, receives food stamps, fakes a life-insurance health exam (using his son’s urine) and develops a dangerous fondness for sleeping pills as the day of reckoning draws nearer. There are times when Snyder’s copious self-analysis is pathetic even to him; at one point he fantasizes that a hotel bellhop is going to escort him “backstage to show me that everything I had always believed to be true about myself was only some kind of trick.” In the meantime, his saintly wife and angelic kids eye dad warily, waiting for him either to snap out of it or hit bottom. “You can’t see yourself, but we can,” his wife tells him. “And we’re all scared.”

The world beyond the walls of the ivory tower is frightening. Snyder discovers that the secondand third-tier teaching positions he once turned down so blithely have disappeared and that the minimum-wage, working-class jobs he now seeks don’t even carry health insurance. Despite the college’s generous “golden handshake,” he is living on borrowed time. Snyder often begins a with a miniature balance sheet of his savings and expenses, a clever device that evokes the ominous feeling of a ticking clock. Indeed, much of the book’s “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I” power comes from the subtle way Snyder chronicles his gradual awareness of just how difficult survival has become for even the luckiest members of the middle class.

After his daughter nearly loses a finger in an accident, Snyder gets a construction job building an enormous mansion in the affluent Prout’s Neck section of Maine in order to pay her medical bills. The work is hard but honest, and Snyder gushes with epiphanies about “the working man” that would make Walt Whitman blush. “I watched Mike walking to his truck at the end of the day,” he writes. “He knew who he was, and like all people who know who they are, a kind of grace attended him and his work. The snow that afternoon cast a silence upon the house, and I felt changed.” Unfortunately, Snyder’s personal salvation obscures the tribulations that made the first three-quarters of the book so compelling; once he picks up a hammer, they become sepia-toned and indistinct.

That Snyder’s quest for self is so entangled with his search for work is responsible for “The Cliff Walk’s” esthetic strength as well as its analytical weakness. While his personal crisis gives the book emotional heft, it has little to do with his financial prospects. In truth, he is merely another victim of the post-industrial economy: low-paying McJobs with no benefits, no future and no security. A memoir is, by definition, proof of survival – and perhaps even triumph – over adversity, but the relentless economic forces Snyder faces are virtually incapable of producing a happy ending.

As it tries to square this circle, “The Cliff Walk” ends on an odd note. Snyder implies that everything is hunky-dory now that he has discovered the “sanctity of work” and abandoned his bourgeois longings. “I had steady work right through the winter, and by spring I no longer thought of being a college professor,” he writes. What he fails to mention is that he also got a new job: teaching English at the University of Maine. Like any other right-minded post-industrial laborer, Snyder doesn’t want to stay in the working class. After a taste of the new American nightmare, he prefers to take another crack at the old American dream.