New Welsh Review
Jim Neat: The Case of a Young Man Down on His Luck
Mary J Oliver
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Mary J Oliver’s father passed away in 1983, but it isn’t until twenty-five years later that a spark ignites inside the author, urging her to find out who her elusive father was. She embarks on a journey that takes her to a whole other continent as she retraces Jim Neat’s footsteps. It takes her ten years of research to compile an extensive collection of letters and documents that, together, make up this remarkable story.
This uncategorisable ‘novel’, often labeled as a memoir, is an exceptional piece of literature – a continuous confessional poem, perhaps, that takes on various shapes and forms. Its full title, Jim Neat: The Case of a Young Man Down on His Luck hints at the contents as it opens with a case file from 1935 when Jim is admitted to Whitby Psychiatric Hospital in Toronto. Separated into three parts, the first, Inmate, gradually unfolds Jim’s life, from his family home to sailing the Atlantic and settling down in Canada. Seeking success in North America, he sees it as a ‘promised land’ but is quickly disillusioned by the current state of the country:
I’ve been in and still going through absolute hell, in and out of this place more times than I can count. / It will be hard for you to understand how tough a place this country can be.
The one true happiness Jim experiences while in Canada is with Lizbietta; however, she soon dies in childbirth and their newborn daughter is given away for adoption. This drives Jim over the edge, resulting in heavy use of narcotics and trouble with the law. All of this is conveyed through multiple letters and poems, as Dr Fletcher’s case files guide the reader through Jim’s condition and subsequent recovery.
Encouraged to write, Jim slowly starts to open up, no longer suppressing his past trauma. The poem ‘The Homecoming 1935’ retraces the steps that lead to his hospitalization. Told in a frantic voice, interrupted by the multitude of commas that slice up thought process, it is the first time the reader is exposed to the truth of Jim’s trauma:
I get back to Saskatoon with $80 in my pocket for Lizbietta but she is dead, it’s 40 degrees, the curtains are drawn, she died five days ago, Valentyna tells me, we buried her by the river, tuberculosis, post-partum hemorrhage, I don’t know, I don’t know….
During his time in Whitby, Jim recovers and finds a new meaning in life, deciding he must live in remembrance of Lizbietta (‘Murdered Lad of Penge’). He develops a relationship with his fellow inmate, Frank Schofield, and helps him reunite with his presumed-to-be-dead wife. Jim also helps Dr Fletcher’s wife find a new meaning to her life after suffering because of the stillborn death of her baby. Through his newfound determination, Jim becomes a beacon of hope for others.
The second part, War, details the story of how Jim and Kate (Oliver’s mother), met. Through Kate’s diary entries, the reader finds out about Jim’s new life in England against the backdrop of WWII. The postcards he sends home create a stark contrast to the war effort as he infuses them with love for his wife and family. This part is proof of Jim’s metamorphosis from a ‘hobo’ to a man determined to live.
Oliver inserts her own accounts of her father in the third part, Found. Here she outlines her memories of Jim in a series of documents, sketches, diary entries and poems, etc, all laced with an array of complex emotions as she begins the journey of deciphering this mysterious figure she called her father:
I hatch a plan. To solve this enigma of my father. His absence in the past. His sudden presence in my life now.
Oliver states that some of the materials have been re-written or completely fabricated in order to fit the narrative; however, those adjustments blend so seamlessly into the memoir that it is impossible to discern what has been altered – Jim’s story reads as authentic and true, regardless of any changes that might have come about during the structuring process.
This unique memoir shows the remarkable life of an ordinary man, proving that each life can be made extraordinary. Jim Neat is a man who has undergone many a trial in life, as well as many joys. He has had a powerful impact on the people he’s met along the way – something he will undoubtedly continue to do so through this book that has immortalized his unique spirit.
Desi Tsvetkova is this season’s reviewer-in-residence, in a new partnership with Swansea University’s College of Arts and Humanities.