Early in Dustin Parsons’s essay collection Exploded View: Essays on Fatherhood, with Diagrams, Parsons establishes his voice. He writes with a precision and level of detail that an engineer gains by sitting at a drafting table producing architectural sketches. Or now, more likely, sitting in front of a computer and producing drawings in AutoCAD. Architectural drawings or technical diagrams require multiple views: the whole object at once, a part of the object with individual pieces numbered and described, an overhead view, or, in the case of the book’s title, an exploded view. In this last type, the object’s parts are strewn out from the center as if a snapshot has been taken during a very orderly explosion of the object. Parsons’s collection—his first—is full of these diagrams, and they make his book as much a visual artifact as a written one.
Parsons, who teaches at the University of Mississippi and received recognition in The Best American Essays 2014, embeds these kinds of technical drawings in the essays to bring the reader closer to the environment and subject matter of his book, which is often about work, place, and fatherhood. Many essays involve all three. During the first third of the book, titled “Dispatches from the Fifty-First State,” Parsons mostly writes about working temporary agricultural or industrial jobs in Kansas when he was young, sometimes helping out his father repair pumpjacks and solar arrays, at other times working for local families. Much like the drawings in the book, the scenes with fathers—at first Parsons’s own or his friends’ and later himself—are about work. Communication between father and son is sparse and Parsons seems to suggest a pride in the solid work you can complete with family. So he uses diagrams of occupational objects like a storage shed and a truck, but also diagrams of scientific importance like the Fujita Scale and a flood plain. In fact, the drawings throughout the book are Parsons’s own: the layout of a house in the quiet, excellent essay “Solar Array,” a set of diagrams of a book, and an instructional piece for how to draw a cardinal.
Much of the considerable power of Parsons’s nonfiction is how he brings these graphics to bear on the narrative or lyrical imagination of each essay. Some images are supplemental, visually defining integral objects, and others provide a structure for the essay. For example, the essay “Nesting Box for the Eastern Bluebird: A Guide” is written as an instruction set for constructing a nesting box, with each step blending surprising history on bird enclosures with meditations on providing protection and a sense of home for his sons. Parsons is ostensibly building the enclosure with his sons, whom Parsons adroitly describes in a moment of brotherhood:
The boys finish painting, and all there is to do is watch it dry. So they get their soccer ball and begin a small game, the older one dominating the field while the younger cries foul and demands the ball. They beg me to play, but I demur. There are times when a moment is too much for me to intrude on, and I watch from the deck instead as they struggle with brotherhood.
The drawings also convey helpful context and subtext for the prose. In “The Flood Plain,” each section of the essay starts with a side-view diagram of the Cimarron River as the river reacts to small-scale and global human intervention on the river’s ecology. The sections also begin with a summary of the ecological changes occurring with the river while other historical facts weave into the essay proper. These descriptions capture the atmosphere of freedom that belongs to Parsons’s early twenties, when he had the free time to observe the newfound flow of the Cimarron’s waters, and the luxury of boredom, which led to drinking dangerously in cars and near the river’s steep banks. While this essay stands apart from other essays about fatherhood in the book, it does suggest what happens in the negative space, where fathers aren’t present, only adults shedding their childhood.
But the riverbed drawings additionally reflect the past wildness of Parsons’s life, now under reflection. The channels of a river are buried in the same manner a memory is buried but still accessible without much digging. As Parsons reveals at the end of the essay, “If memories are grooves made in the brain, then following those memories is like walking dry creek beds with water at one’s heels. When the floodwaters recede they leave a memory groove, a silty evidence of their power.”
For its genre, the book is big and, in a way, Parsons writes like a musician who is a multi-instrumentalist. He stretches the lyrical essay all the way to poetry, although he is also a realistic writer of considerable skill. The diagrams amplify the sense that the work is truly hybrid. Several essays display diagrams with numbered parts, but the labels for each number sometimes help decide the genre and tone. For instance, in “The Gun and the Bird,” the orderliness of an exploded view of a gun matches the transactional nature of providing insurance information to a stranger after a minor incident—as Parsons does in this more narrative-leaning essay—but when the wronged person’s shoddy pistol is revealed, the 28 labels break up the story into tense, jagged pieces. Details become distinct units, in a way that is both perfunctory and unnerving.
The labeled diagrams elsewhere set up writing that is more like poetry, as in the title work. Parsons uses poetic techniques to give us something more appropriate to the emotion of not knowing where your young child is:
26. And then he was gone and that street-terror sound
27. of locking brakes is all that can fill your ears.
28. I ran the house twice shouting the boy’s name.
29. And then I could see the yard
30. as though it were a machine
31. reduced to its constituent parts.
The same unit-producing quality of anxiety in “The Gun and the Bird” then appears in “Exploded View” too. Except now the splitting of line is more akin to Robert Creeley’s idea that breath dictates line breaks, and, to a certain degree, the tone. Terror, combined with running, is hyperventilation. No attempt is made to cool the moment with prose. Elsewhere Parsons writes about the more slow-burning anxieties of being a parent: helping your biracial children navigate their self-identity and letting your children take control of their own daily routine. In each case, Parsons finds a storytelling form, structure, and tone that is incredibly well-suited for the moment.
In a book full of technical drawings and multiform observation on fatherhood, there is silence in the way of advice. The reader will find clever instruction on folding a ten-foot piece of paper into a two-and-a-half-foot tall owl, but nothing close to even a here’s-what-worked-for-me speech and accompanying handshake. The early essays, in fact, are largely absent reflection. Instead, the reader will find that the work Parsons assisted his father with in rural Kansas and the work Parsons does for his boys is evidence of how fatherhood is a response to realities, actual and the kinds we hope to build. The work is the lesson itself. And Parsons is the writer to strip the Calvinism or self-help veneer of that idea away, while leaving the simple spiritualism in place.