Peace Corps Writers
Howls From a Hungry Place, Part III (page 3)
Howls From a Hungry Place, Part III
page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4, page 5

     It is in The Saddest Pleasure that Thomsen finally brings to life one of the great, awful characters in non-fiction literature: his father, Charles Thomsen, himself the son of one of the classic Robber Baron characters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century — Thomsen’s namesake grandfather, who made a fortune in the flour mill business in the Pacific Northwest. Did Moritz, writing in Saddest Pleasure, really see his father, dead since 1969, standing before a statue in some square, or walking out of a bar, or standing before him as he tried to sleep in the hot, Brazilian night? No matter, it helps the story — Thomsen’s writing is filled with mystical visions and shattering revelations — and in introducing Daddy he sets the stage for his last great book, the posthumously published My Two Wars.
     The Saddest Pleasure was published in 1990, to mostly good reviews, but by that time Thomsen was a very sick man, 75 years old and suffering from the effects of a lifetime of backbreaking farm labor and a love-hate relationship (mostly love) with cigarettes. Spending the last 28 years of his life in the jungles of a tropical country didn’t help his physical state either; visitors (and there were many — curmudgeonly persona to the contrary, Thomsen was a gregarious man, easily driven to despair by loneliness or isolation, even if it was often self-imposed or brought about by his ability to wound deeply those who loved him most) were often shocked to find him, white hair falling out in clumps from fungal infections, teeth long gone, writing constantly and barely eating, just hanging on in Guayaquil, Ecuador. He died there on August 28, 1991, after contracting cholera and refusing relatively simple treatment that could have prolonged his life, albeit briefly.

Catch-22

     He had seen the end approaching for years, and worked feverishly to complete two books (a third, From My Window, is reputed to have at least made it to the “taking notes” stage). Bad News from a Black Coast has languished on publishers’ desks for over a dozen years, excerpted once in Salon.com but otherwise unpublished. But he had also finished a manuscript documenting his battles with his tyrannical father, as well as his experiences as a B-17 bombardier in the European theater in World War II. My Two Wars is the result of those last years of feverish writing. The opening line, magnificent in its simplicity (“This is a book about my involvement with two great catastrophes — the Second World War and my father”) sets the tone for what could very well be the best account of the experiences of American bomber crews in WWII. The inevitable comparisons to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 don’t take away from Thomsen’s book at all.
     But to get to WWII you must first clamber through the dark, riveting tale of Thomsen’s father Charlie. By all accounts a mean, cruel, repellent man, driven by a consuming desire to top his own father in amassing wealth, power, prestige — and perhaps most of all, the fawning, unquestioning sycophancy of his children — Charles Thomsen haunted Moritz until he himself died. He also had a daughter, Wilhelmina, Moritz’s younger sister, and when both children were very young his marriage to Thomsen’s mother collapsed. His remarriage and building of a huge French Provincial mansion named Wildcliffe set the stage for an abusive, surreal family scene that left lifelong scars on brother and sister alike. (Wildcliffe is still there, near Kenmore, Washington, at the end of Lake Washington, now a bed-and-breakfast.)
     
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