Anxiety, Hell’s Angels and Haiku

It’s all there in Criminals: My Family’s Life on Both Sides of the Law by Robert Siegel.

What’s the key thing writers need the most? Raw material of course. Author Robert Anthony Siegel has a goldmine of raw material living in a New York City duplex with his parents, Stanley and Frances, and trying to make sense of his childhood.

Dad is a charismatic criminal defense attorney, bringing all kinds of questionable characters home. Young Robert accompanies his dad to Hell’s Angel’s clubhouse parties and dines with drug dealers and possible murderers.

Mom takes Robert to MoMA and the Whitney to show him paintings by Motherwell and Rothko, to counterbalance Dad’s lowbrow Brooklyn background and make sure there is art and culture in his life.

Complex doesn’t begin to describe Dad. The reason his clients love him is that he is an old-school lawyer, with a gift for story telling in front of the jury and throwing in Shakespeare quotes to boot. He rescues his clients time and time again. Dad’s depression is eased by lots of antidepressants, consuming huge quantities of food and spending money as fast as he gets it – even a duffel bag full of cash (a gift from a grateful client). His depression is especially intense after the DEA bring charges against him and he goes away to prison for a year.

Told in a personal essay style, this memoir is one you can’t put down. At first you feel like you’re careening around roads on the edge of a cliff, but the author’s skillful writing keeps you grounded, entertained and delighted right up to the book’s end. This is a reading experience like no other.

And where does the Haiku come in? Toward the end of the book Robert, who has spent years learning to speak Japanese and to learn about Japanese culture as a way of coping with his life, explains it best in the very touching chapter “Haiku For My Father.” As his father stumbles toward the end of his life, Siegel is reminded of the last haiku of Basho Matsuo, helping him make sense of not only his father’s life, but his own as well. Maybe it even explains the reader’s life also.

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