1. I don’t remember my fifth birthday.
2. Lincoln Dahl, though, remembers his.
3. Lincoln Dahl is the narrator of Sam Michel’s novel, Strange Cowboy, subtitled Lincoln Dahl Turns Five. I suppose the subtitle might make the first phrase of this point redundant—so let me add that there are two Lincoln Dahl’s, the father, our hero, and his son, whose birthday it is.
4. The novel takes place on the day of the party for the younger Lincoln’s fifth birthday. But the actual events of the day serve only as a kind of grounding for the elder Lincoln’s mess of memories.
5. If this book were attempted by a writer any less capable than Sam Michel, it might very well be awful.
6. I’m a sucker for books that play with memory. Especially childhood memories. I like that they’re complicated mysteries. I like that they’re relatable. Everyone has a childhood littered with blocks for good language to rearrange and play with.
7. With so much of memory, we have to take our parents’ word for it. Especially birthdays One through Five. The Fifth is really the first we might be able to remember. The Fifth birthday is a kind of second birth, one of memory. Maybe it’s the line between child and kid.
8. Now the younger Lincoln is five, and he’s going to remember his father. The elder Lincoln knows it from experience.
9. On being a good father:
I hear my wife inform me that my duty to the boy, in part, is to provide for him a model…As it stands, my son’s past with me has been a woozy spiral of neglect and woundings. Lucky for us—for me, she meant—he isn’t likely to remember. Till now.
10. On making it up to him:
“’He’s at the age where he remembers,’ said my wife. ‘Give the boy a party. Anything is possible. I bet he’ll forget you were the one who burned his drawings.’”
11. I wonder what sorts of falls and injuries I had as a child. I wonder what I don’t know. Maybe I broke bones.
12. I wonder if my parents would tell me if they’d been anything less than what I remember. I remember my parents as heroes.
13. I don’t think anyone wants to risk being remembered as a hero. Especially when the truth is so long past that it doesn’t seem like it could matter.
14. The elder Lincoln knows better than anyone how our memory changes with time.
15. If a mother or father leaves a family, all that’s left of them is what the family remembers.
16. The elder Lincoln, on his mother:
“Consider how the boy Dahl sees the mother as a snowman, whereas the man Dahl sees her as a magpie. Nothing is the thing to us it is.”
17. And, on his father:
“He made his own life. A man could make his life. I imagine he said: You are proof of my making. I imagine he was saying: You unmade me. Nothing I imagine feels to me untrue.”
18. Then, on them both:
“I think they both had seen me as an easy way to keep themselves from what they really wholly wanted.”
19. Mostly what I remember from childhood are the animals. The lizards and snakes I chased through the grass, the pup I got as a birthday gift (at what age, I don’t recall). Michel’s Lincoln is much the same. On his own fifth birthday, there is a horse to ride. On his son’s birthday, a dog is dead.
20. Somehow, impossibly, the horse’s name is Whim. And Lincoln’s memory of the horse is just that—less specific than the smell of his father’s breath waking him at dawn to ride with him.
21. The dog is named Hope. And Hope dies. And Lincoln has to protect his son from learning that Hope is dead (I would balk at such blatant metaphors if Michel himself didn’t seem so surprised by these names).
22. When Hope dies:
“The news today said Hope was not to always be there, the dog was dead, run down by a Buick. Had it been a European vehicle, or a luxury sedan, or had my neighbor named his dog a name like Ginger, or like Buck, or had my son been even second to attend to her, then I am certain that my wife would never have sustained herself beside my chair for long enough to make me Hope’s mortician.”
23. I had a dog named Ginger. She died some years ago in the garage, cold and alone, but old enough. This seems somehow deeply important to how good this book is. Relatable and real and relevant to life.
24. My father called to tell me my dog was dead, and he was crying. He said he remembered when his own dog had died. I think all dogs are really named Hope.
25. I hope someday my wife and I have children. I hope we’ll have a dog and wonderful fifth birthday parties. I hope we’re able to tell them stories as beautiful as Sam Michel’s Strange Cowboy: Lincoln Dahl Turns Five.
Joseph Riippi’s most recent books are A Cloth House and The Orange Suitcase. His next, Research: A Novel for Performance, will be published in 2014 by Civil Coping Mechanisms.