One December afternoon in 1994, Kyle Boelte came home from school and sat down in front of the TV set with his usual glass of milk to watch “Saved by the Bell.” It was the last day of classes before winter break, and Christmas was just a week away. The brightly wrapped presents for 13-year-old Kyle and his brother, Kris, who was three years older, were already piling up in Mom and Dad’s bedroom.
While Kyle was generally shy and introverted, Kris was more daring and outgoing, with a quick wit and confident demeanor that made him popular among his classmates. Kyle regarded him as not just older brother and mentor, but more like a best friend. When Kyle called out “Hey, Kris!” as he arrived home that day and didn’t hear an answer, he didn’t think anything of it. He had no idea that the lives of everyone in his family were about to change overnight, and that he would never sleep in that house again.
As Kyle kicked back in the living room, his brother’s body was growing cool in the basement, dangling from a rafter by the noose he used to hang himself. Why would such a well-liked boy — a former child prodigy with a cheerleader girlfriend — choose suicide? Was it about the mysterious issues he’d been working through with a therapist for the previous year? Was it the meeting he had that morning with the school principal and his mother to discuss allegations of his involvement in a local LSD investigation? Was it because he was an adopted child who was slowly drifting away from the only mother and father he ever knew? Since Kris didn’t leave a note before stacking a pile of boxes in the basement, questions like this would proliferate and ramify in Kyle’s mind for years as he faced adulthood without his best friend.
These questions form the basis of Boelte’s impressive authorial debut, “The Beautiful Unseen: Variations on Fog and Forgetting.” But this fascinating book is more than another memoir of a loved one left behind by suicide. By juxtaposing the story of his brother’s short life and abrupt death with meditations on a seemingly unlikely subject — the history of San Francisco fog — Boelte has produced one of the most haunting books ever written about the fragility of memory.
Written as a tapestry of multiple voices — personal reflections, meteorological musings on global weather patterns, emoticon-laden handwritten letters from Kris’ girlfriend Kimberly, his brother’s death certificate — “The Beautiful Unseen” knows that the sacredness of the world is found in mundane particulars like the Slurpee that one of Kris’ friends places on the altar at his memorial service.
It’s not surprising to learn that several major publishers passed over Boelte’s manuscript before it found a home at Soft Skull Press, an imprint of Counterpoint, in Berkeley. Not much “happens” in the usual dramatic sense; there are no cathartic confrontations, shocking reveals or glib translations of the silence of Kris’ final act. Instead, the force of the book’s intertwining narratives sneaks up on the reader, like the marine layer gradually soaking the shirt of a solitary runner at Ocean Beach.
As Boelte explores the city from various desolate and windswept vantage points — Lands End, Tennessee Valley, a trail in Golden Gate Park — he’s mapping a topography of emotion, trying to make sense of fragmentary impressions of his brother before they fade from his consciousness altogether. At 30, he is already a master of capturing moments of life that other writers miss. “One day I looked up and realized I no longer knew what my brother’s voice sounded like,” he writes. “I had been holding onto it like a photograph in a pocket close to the chest. But it gradually slipped. And then one day it was gone.”
In one of the book’s most mesmerizing passages, the author climbs up the steps of the Battery Boutelle, a turn-of-the-20th century naval defense installation at the Presidio, and watches a cloud alternately condensing and sublimating overhead. “I watch it come into being again and again. Out of blue sky the wisps of white stratus appear,” Boelte observes. “I look for the moment, the precise moment, when the cloud begins. I cannot catch it.” At another point, the fog always lurking at the edges of his memories of his brother invades the text, rendering several pages blank. There are some places in grief that words can’t go.
By bringing so many creative resources to “The Beautiful Unseen,” Boelte defies his brother’s act of self-negation, coming into his own power by refusing to look away from the most ravaging edges of his grief. What could have been the story of a lonely and inexplicable death instead becomes a celebration of human perseverance in all its irreducible complexity.
Steve Silberman’s “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity” will be published by Penguin Random House in August. E-mail: email@example.com
The Beautiful Unseen
Variations on Fog and Forgetting
By Kyle Boelte
(Soft Skull Press/Counterpoint; 156 pages; $14.95 paperback)