Summary of Here Lies Memory by Doug Rice
Here Lies Memory is the story of two families in Pittsburgh, sometime after the Vietnam War. Fred and Debra (one of the families) are searching for their missing son, Lucas, an imaginary son who only exists in language, in story and desire. Debra, the mother, awakens one morning to “discover” that their son is gone. But Lucas never existed; he was simply a story created by Fred, the father, and others to protect Debra from her past, a past which is slowly revealed through the events of the novel. As a child, Debra lived a nearly fairytale existence that included her following a young boy who played with matches along the shore of the North Side of Pittsburgh, and following an older version of herself along the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers and trails, and slipping into a complicated, nearly Faulknerian incestuous relationship with her Vietnam War traumatized, brother, Bob. Fred devotes his life to drinking beer on his porch with his closest friend, Jim, waiting for Lucas to “return,” until one night, when waiting no longer seems possible, they embark on a journey with Bob down Perry Hilltop onto the streets of the North Side to search for the true origin of Lucas.
Here Lies Memory is also the story of Elgin and his grandson, Johnny. All of the women have disappeared from their lives. They live each day hoping that something from their past will return. At the beginning of the novel, Elgin decides to will himself to go blind in order to stop seeing the slow deterioration of Pittsburgh in his memory, as gentrification steals his past. He also hopes becoming blind will allow him to see his past in new ways—his tour of duty in the Vietnam War and his love for his deceased wife, Thuy, and his departed daughter, Lehuong. While Elgin begins to live a blind life, Johnny has to confront the death of his closest friend, T.J., a boy who has been erased by the life that he lived. While unraveling the cause of T.J.’s death through conversations with the Street Elder and One-eyed-Pete and other characters, Johnny slowly begins to realize how his past bears on his identity. A central part of his journey is his life along the banks of the Monongahela River, where he searches for the ghost of his great grandfather and the stories his great grandfather has left behind in his footprints. Along the river, he also first meets Sylvia, a young girl who walks the streets of Pittsburgh trying to save herself from her family, and trying to become a pirate in order to save the daughters of fathers who pick her up in their cars.
The novel is structured in parallel narratives, with chapters alternating among Fred and Debra and Elgin and Johnny.
Here Lies Memory explores the place of memory in the daily practice of living. It explores what language and photographs do to memory, desire and love, and what gentrification is doing to personal lives of those people disappearing from the streets and homes in the Hill District and the North Side of Pittsburgh.