"The Boy on the Green Bicycle"

A writer remembers the horror of her brother's death when she was 9 -- and the pain and growth that came of it.


John Freeman
August 23, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

When Margaret Diehl was 9 years old, her 14-year-old brother was hit and killed by a speeding car. For the next 40 years, Diehl lived in the "shadow" of this event, which she meditates on -- and exorcises -- in her urgently written memoir, "The Boy on the Green Bicycle." Riffing wildly and overextending her story's welcome, Diehl can be maudlin; yet her book is a triumph of honesty. In exploring the depths of her loss, she powerfully evokes what it is to grieve.

Writing like the novelist she is (her previous books include "Men" and "You & Me"), Diehl begins her story with portraits of her family. Her mother comes from the "South of debutantes and the Junior League," but when we meet her the "South is mostly a place inside her throat"; she is glamorous and wealthy yet vaguely disappointed with her fate. Diehl's father is full of energy but aloof, with a muted anger toward life; though he is a successful publishing executive, he is ill at ease as a parent. The Diehl's 22-room home in Montclair, N.J., feels more like an "edifice" than a house. Mr. and Mrs. Diehl are forever coming and going in a cloud of "cosmetics, tobacco, perfume," while their two boys and two girls -- "the proper number" -- live in a world of their own.

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Using a variety of devices, Diehl recreates the childhood eye with which she sees "the grass squeaky clean but for the rose's fragrance, the dog's curled offering. The adults on the flagstone terrace as if on a spaceship somewhere, drinking, smoking cigarettes." One day her older brother Jimmy -- "prankish, clownish" and confident -- promises his parents that he will return early from a friend's house on his new green bike. When he misses his curfew, they refuse to pick him up; he must bicycle home in the dark as punishment. He never makes it. "And so," Diehl writes, "was stolen the freshness of the world."

She renders the grieving process awesomely. At first she doesn't really miss Jimmy; it merely seems as though he is away at camp. Death, after all, "was something that happened to old people and animals." Then one morning she wakes to the split-second relief of having forgotten, for a night, that Jimmy is dead. Thus she begins to know grief. She scoffs at grown-ups and their fake emotions, yet her parents feel his death even more powerfully than she does. The loss eventually undoes the Diehls, driving Margaret's mother to drink and her father to self-destruction. After the family moves to an eight-room duplex in New York, Margaret tries to start over. The process ends up taking the rest of her life.

While this is a sad, sad, story, something wonderful emerges from it: Margaret's discovery of her consciousness as a writer. In examining "the honeycomb of [her] inner world, the sinewy power of consciousness," she learns what it will someday take to write her story. And in offering up this memoir, Diehl brings grief horribly, humanely, realistically -- and bravely -- to life.


John Freeman

John Freeman has written about books and culture for the Village Voice, Time Out New York and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He lives in New York.

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