Sunday, January 31, 2010

Death and Dignity: The Peter Barton Story

Book Review

Not Fade Away: A Short Life Well Lived
A Memoir by Peter Barton
with Laurence Shames

Peter Barton was an accomplished man. So much so, I had trouble relating to him at times throughout his story. But he and Laurence Shames collaborated so well on this memoir, I was moved to tears as I struggled to get through the final compelling pages.

From moderately privileged roots, Mr. Barton started out as a political advisor in his twenties and moved on to a career—short-lived though it was—as a virtual titan in the world of business and entertainment. At a moment as unpropitious an any, and in the prime of his young life, Barton discovered he had cancer. Before long it was evident his disease would pose the kind of challenge he believed he wasn't prepared for. That is until he resolved not to let his illness define who he was.

The co-authors deftly weave their contributions into the emotional fabric of the memoir, at one point sharing their story about the time they challenged each to tell the other why they were "doing this" at all. When Shames asks Barton this very question, Barton's answer is pointed: "I'll tell you, but first I want your answer to the exact same question." Shames then went on to describe his own emotional experiences involving the deaths of both of his parents over a recent eight-month span. The grief, the reflection, the introspection—all things it seemed as though Shames needed to revisit in order to qualify him for the task at hand. Ultimately, answering each other's challenge brought the two men closer together, which benefitted the telling of the story immeasurably.

We clearly get the picture that Barton was the kind of guy who always jumped into things with both feet. Whether it was the Green Truck cross-country journey to the Rocky Mountains of his adventurous youth, the danger flouting of his acrobatic ski-jumping days, or his many forays into business. Barton was someone who had no qualms about getting hurt, doing it wrong, or failing completely; one way or the other, he was at least going to try.

Barton draws on his experiences as a sometime, carefree nomad of yesteryear to psychologically manage his advancing illness. He makes no secret of—or apology for—the value living in the moment can have in both the best of times and worst of times. In fact, with a sort of joyful eeriness, Barton takes us on his voyage of worldly descent with amazing alacrity, describing in sublime detail how the past, present and future are all becoming one the closer he gets to the end.

And the end of the Peter Barton story is superbly told by Barton himself, sharing what he now sees as something possessing a "richness" and "texture" he didn't expect. So close to death, yet full of life, Barton confesses he did not find the calm he is now feeling. It found him.

I got through this book in a day and a half, unable to put it aside. And the next time I find myself wrestling with my own mortality, if it becomes too difficult, I'll just read Not Fade Away all over again. It is sure to replenish my courage.

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