A Generation’s Lost Voice
On March 14, the writer Amanda Davis and both her parents were killed in a small plane crash outside of Asheville, N.C., on the way to promote the publication of her first novel. Amanda, 32, was my close friend. Since that day, the title of her book, “Wonder When You’ll Miss Me,” has achieved a miserable poignancy. I miss her already.
Someday, literary historians will write about the younger writers of our time, writers like Dave Eggers, Jonathan Lethem, Brady Udall, Susan Orlean, Vendela Vida, Elissa Schapell, Susan Choi, Daniel Handler and so many others who knew Amanda as a colleague and a friend. It breaks my heart to imagine that Amanda, by virtue of the slenderness of her literary legacy — one short story collection and a single novel — might be no more than a footnote to those other biographies. Amanda was so much more. She was the knot that held this group of writers and friends together, the inspiration behind so much of their work, an editor, teacher, co-conspirator and cheerleader.
“Wonder When You’ll Miss Me” is an expansion of the final short story from her 1999 collection, “Circling the Drain,” published when Amanda was 29 years old. The 15 stories in “Circling the Drain” are daring, even surreal tales, at once grim and oddly redemptive. The book garnered remarkable reviews that likened Amanda’s writing to that of Grace Paley. “Amanda Davis writes gently, even poetically, about extraordinary brutality,” wrote The New York Times. “She has a distinctively creepy, noirish sensibility.” That was Amanda’s writing in a nutshell, creepy and noirish, and, at the same time, vivid and romantic.
“Wonder When You’ll Miss Me” tells the story of Faith Duckle, a high school outcast who is brutally assaulted by a gang of boys. Faith’s suicide attempt lands her in the hospital, where she sheds 48 pounds, but not the angry fat girl who once lived only inside her, who has now graduated, mysteriously, to an external presence, at once comforting and hostile. Faith runs away to join the aptly named Fartlesworth Circus, learns to shovel elephant manure, and finally, beautifully, to fly on the trapeze.
The novel follows a redemptive path, but like everything Amanda wrote, has at its core that “noirish” ambiguity: the terrifying truth that the world is a harrowing place, where survival and salvation are never guaranteed but must, nonetheless, be striven for.
Like her story collection, the novel was greeted with a chorus of praise — Amanda hit that magical, rarely obtained trifecta of brilliant reviews in Publishers Weekly (an “auspicious debut novel”), Booklist (“an astonishing debut: dark, disturbing and fiercely openhearted”) and Kirkus Reviews (“heartbreaking if not flawless”). Amanda spent hours obsessing over Kirkus’s “if.” Did the reviewer mean that the novel was flawless or not?
The obvious, public tragedy of Amanda’s death was that a brilliant young writer was cut down, long before she had reached her prime, when we had only begun to realize the extent of her magnificent talent. But when her father’s Cessna flew into the side of Old Fort Mountain, something much more than a gifted writer was lost.
As unusual as her genius for writing may have been, Amanda’s genius for friendship was unique. Immediately after her death, the Web site of Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the online literary journal, was completely rededicated as a memorial to her, a place where people could share stories and memories. What has become clear from this outpouring of grief and reminiscence is that Amanda was one of those rare people who knows, instinctively, fiercely, almost unconsciously, how to be a friend. As Heidi Julavits recalled, “Her friends were her cubs. She protected them, she grubbed food for them, she cuffed them on the head when they got too whiney or pathetic. She was mother bear, psychoanalyst, nurse, real estate agent, plumber, computer technician, consumer advocate, expert on everything from used truck parts to biscuit recipes.”
Amanda could do this because she was so devoted, so intelligent, so full of humor and good spirits, but also because she was so sly. She was, as Julavits says, “a vicious sweetheart.” There was no one better at dishing than Amanda, no one who could see through you and herself with sharper precision. My favorite moments of the last few months were lying with my feet in her lap, while she rubbed away the aches and pains of pregnancy from my toes, instructing me on just what a hypocrite someone had become and why that hadn’t made the least bit of difference to the quality of his prose. She was also nearly finished editing my latest novel, and I am furious that the final quarter of the book will lack the touch of her harsh and loving scalpel.
I realized, reading those dozens of postings, that my experience with Amanda, while utterly exceptional in my life, was commonplace in hers. As Jonathan Lethem remembered, she did not so much make a friend as will friendships into existence: She became indispensable to us, and we loved her ever after.
When I heard the news, I immediately thought of Valentine’s Day, when my kitchen was full of women in aprons, baking bread. Amanda, upon hearing my 5-year-old son complain about my failures as a ballabusta, had insisted on bringing her mother over to teach me the necessary art of making a challah. The process, as I’m sure those with more experience than I would have expected, took all day. During the hours we spent waiting for the dough to rise, Amanda; her mother, Francie, her sister Joanna; our friend Lisa, and I talked about sesame versus poppy, about styles of loaf-braiding, about Jewish mothers who insisted on accompanying their daughters on book tours and, mostly, about books.
I remember that yeast-smelling day in my kitchen, with Amanda and Francie holding hands and laughing about which of them over the years had hung up more often on the other, and all of us arguing about which of the novels we had read most recently was the best, which authors were the real thing, which were just flashes in the literary pan.
At the sad finale of “Charlotte’s Web,” E.B. White writes of his brave, loyal and fearsome heroine, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” Like Charlotte the spider, Amanda Davis was both.
Ayelet Waldman is a writer living in California. Her next book, “Daughter’s Keeper,” will be published in September by Sourcebooks Landmark.