Memoirs have become a popular genre in the past few years. Unlike autobiographies of well-known public figures which relate their subjects’ historic encounters with famous people, memoirs are being written by ordinary people who simply want to tell the story of their lives. Readers are drawn in not because they want to know how someone they admire became the famous person he or she is, but because of the inherent emotional truth in a well-written personal story. Some memoirs tend toward the maudlin, romanticizing Ma and Pa and the ancestral homestead; others recount childhood traumas and the personal struggle as an adult to overcome them and move on.
Citadel on the Mountain is more the latter type. The unifying theme is Richard Wertime’s relationship with his father. We get some sense of who Dick is, of difficult times in his life, in his marriages; and quite a strong sense of who his father was. Towards the end we learn that the father died in 1981; thus the narrator is recounting scenes from 20, 30, 40 years back. The end, Dad’s death of cancer, takes up a disproportionately large section of the book. It appears this event led Wertime to be able to untie the knot he had carried within himself until then. It must have been quite a process of spiritual re-creation – a survival strategy to confront nagging feelings built up over decades.
Dad was a military man in World War II, worked for the State Department, probably also for the C.I.A., though that is not quite clear. Dick was the second of four sons born in quick succession in the 1940’s. The father was such a strong personality, so dominating and bossy and omnipresent, that the boys’ mother comes off pale in comparison. And although the three brothers play a major role in the memoir, we also get only a vague sense of who they are. It would have been interesting to learn how each coped with their overbearing father, but this is Richard’s story.
Again and again Dad lectures, harangues, carries on. He holds monologues on walks with his sons, telling them his theories about the missteps they’re taking in life, or that the US government is taking in foreign policy. He takes on unsettling traits, ranting about doomsday, bringing his mistress into the family.
Large stretches of landscape descriptions – the rugged rolling hills of south central Pennsylvania, and dusty mountainsides of Iran, where dad was stationed in the mid-‘60’s – play a major role here. These alternate with the author’s interior landscapes of fear and confusion. Apparently the ‘exterior’ landscapes are intended to reflect the turbulent interior ones, perhaps also to relieve their intense tension. Though well-written, this reader pushed through the landscapes to get to the emotional story. The intensity grows as the book proceeds: the passages describing landscapes drop off, and we are confronted almost constantly with Dick’s interior landscape.
The moment of epiphany comes when the author finally articulates to his father that he has been afraid of him all his life. This is practically at the end of the book, and at the end of his dad’s life. It has taken 200 pages – covering 40 years – for Wertime to come to this point, and it is a moving and frightening high point. This reviewer can think of no other book that deals with so many flavors of fear – within one’s own family! – physical chills when killing chickens with a hatchet, spooked incomprehension at Dad’s actions, pervading anxiety, etc. For a journey into a chilling emotional world, plunge into Richard Wertime’s Citadel on the Mountain.