Justin Taylor’s Riding with the Ghost takes its title from a Jason Molina song of the same name, and explores Taylor’s journey as he mourns and copes with the death of his father in much the same melancholy vibrancy and foggy revelation as the distant echo of Molina’s voice.
At the beginning of this memoir, Taylor introduces his complicated relationship with his father by informing us his father unsuccessfully tried to kill himself by throwing himself off of a parking garage, and was only successful in his second attempt later. The linear plot of this story on the surface is how Taylor and his sister worked through their father’s belongings, his difficulties, his various moves, and his emotional struggles after his divorce from their mother – all while Taylor hopped from state to state for work and tries his best to honor his marriage still in its infancy.
The true beauty of this piece lies in Taylor’s interior philosophical musings as he processes so many of life’s great reckonings in this short time period, however. This book is a deep reflection on every element of his life during this tragic and traumatic time in his relationship with his father. Taylor discusses his childhood, as he and his siblings feared the man that so captivated their love and attention. Taylor examines his relationship with his mother and siblings, his relationship with his wife, his relationship with his work as a writer. Taylor explores his (our) belief system, deeply, and its relationship with our culture and why we do what we do and what it has to do with death and the struggle to stay alive and engage in difficult times, even if we interact with it in a completely secular manner. And Taylor doesn’t just explore his relationship with his father’s death, but the deaths of David Berman, Jason Molina, and perhaps most importantly, the death of a student with whom Taylor had a very close relationship, Eli. Taylor also explores his professional and interpersonal relationship with the practice of teaching writing, and how relationships in the classroom can bloom into one of the closest and most meaningful intimate relationships a teacher and student can share.
This is an incredible book, and while my father is still very much alive, Taylor’s piece resonated with me deeply in my relationship with my late mother – who also suffered from Parkinson’s, depression, divorce, suicide ideation, and a helpless failure to thrive over decades leading to her death. The Jewish life, the life as an educator, and my own super fandom of Berman, Pavement, and Molina made this memoir a gorgeous and deeply moving memoir for me. I don’t see this being a book for everyone, but it is a beautifully masculine mediation on work, family, education, relationships, religion, and death, and in Taylor’s hands, these subjects are handled candidly and expertly. He doesn’t attempt to have all of the answers in his writing, but it is his brilliant, concrete journey in prose and philosophy that make this an excellent reflection on this important era in his life.
I want to end with some lyrics from Riding With The Ghost by the late Jason Molina…
I’m running out of things/ I didn’t even know I was using
And while you’ve been busy / Learning how to complain
I’ve been busy learning / How to make a change
Photo by NotFromUtrecht licensed under CC-BySa