Adversity, which can destroy people, often fertilizes the ground for artists. It has certainly done that for Mark Doty. His first two volumes of poetry, "Bethlehem in Broad Daylight" (1987) and "Turtle, Swan" (1991), introduced us to a promising poet. In his third volume, "My Alexandria" (1993), Doty -- responding to the dreadful losses of the AIDS epidemic -- had breakthroughs both in range and in artistic maturity. In that collection, the poem "With Animals," a relentless lament on the need of all creatures to cling to life even under the most horrifying circumstances (and surely one of the finest poems written in our time), demonstrated the poet's flair for dramatic narrative; it wasn't hard to imagine him eventually trying his hand at fiction or memoir.
Since "My Alexandria," Doty has published two books of poems that are increasingly masterful in formal terms yet are overly preoccupied with word stitchery and are often lacking in a sense of urgency. Recently he has been stronger as a memoirist. In 1996, he published "Heaven's Coast," a much-acclaimed account of the death of his lover from AIDS. With "Firebird," his new memoir, he has written his most satisfying book.
"Firebird" tells two overlapping stories. The first is a fairly conventional portrait of the artist as a young man, with the added twist that Doty had to come to terms with his homosexuality at a time when there were few role models and when attitudes were more hostile than they are today. I warmed slowly to this part of the story, since his narrative of his early life in Tennessee, teeming though it is with telling and lovely details about the South, is territory that Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers have covered much more successfully. Doty writes at considerable length about things that would have been better dealt with at a glance.
"Firebird" comes into sharper focus after Mark and his parents move to Tucson, Ariz. His older sister, Sally, gets married and stays behind. Later she makes a memorable re-entrance as a divorcie and ex-convict who turns tricks to make a buck. Doty's lyrical re-creation of the Southwest's parched landscape is one of the book's enormous pleasures: The city of Tucson, with its creosote-scented twilights, dry arroyos and dust storms, becomes another character.
It is in Tucson that the unforgettable story of the author's mother, which forms the core of the memoir, begins to emerge. A woman with an artistic temperament, Ruth Doty signs up for painting and watercolor lessons and flourishes with new friends who share her interests. But her husband, who works on building projects for the government, can't stand still; the family moves frequently (to Florida, to California, back to Tucson) because he keeps getting into trouble with his supervisors. As Mark grows older, wrestles with his sexuality and explores the world of art -- dance, music, painting, crafts and, later, poetry -- a kind of rigor mortis sets in to his parents' marriage, and his mother's drinking problem escalates until she loses her sanity. Ruth's Gothic behavior brings to mind Blanche DuBois' plunge into madness in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Mary Tyrone's drug-ravaged dementia in "Long Day's Journey Into Night." The harrowing last chapters of "Firebird," leading to the final deracinated days when Ruth lies dying of cirrhosis in a hospital ward, are painful to read, yet they are rendered without any trace of sentimentality or self-indulgence.
In these pages, Doty's writing surpasses anything he's ever attempted before and achieves a depth and a clear-eyed splendor that left me bereft and exalted at the same time. What had begun as an oft-told story becomes an authentic tragedy. It's been a while since a book has moved me so, or since a book's appalling beauty has brought to mind the power of great writing to make us feel as if (to paraphrase Emily Dickinson) the top of our head had been taken off. In "Firebird," Mark Doty has elevated the story of his troubled family to the stature of myth, and in the process he has written an American classic.