We Begin at the End Complex but Rewarding



We Begin at the End (2020)

By Chris Whitaker

Henry Holt and Company, 370 pages.


Did you ever have a childhood friend, lose touch, and meet again decades later? The first thing that runs through your mind is whether the kid you recall still resides within the adult standing before you. That's the dilemma facing Chief Walker – known to most simply as “Walk”– who now keeps the peace in a small California town near Anaheim. He has never believed that his best buddy, Vincent King, was guilty though he's been in prison since being adjudicated as an adult at age15 for the killing of seven–year–old Sissy Radley.


Thirty years later, Vincent is out of jail. Almost immediately, though, he is the prime suspect in the death of Star Radley. There's nothing neat in any part of Chris Whitaker's novel. Everybody either has something to hide or suffering from some deep-seated hurt. The Radley clan isn't exactly a collection of upright citizens. Star was a woman of loose virtue, a drunkard, a stripper, and the rough sex lover of club owner/his developer Dickie Darke, Walk’s chief suspect. Star has also left behind a daughter, Duchess, a foul-mouthed 13-year-old, who calls herself “Outlaw” and tries to act and think like one. 


Walk, though, has issues of his own: he's a widower, is emotionally shut down, has been unlucky in the dating scene, and is trying to hide the fact that he has Parkinson's disease. He feels protective of Duchess, in part because his father-in-law's deceased wife was Star’s sister. Outlaw, of course, thinks she needs no one and balks at Walk’s attempt to send her to live with her grandfather.


Walk isn’t getting anywhere with an investigation he’s not even supposed to undertake. All of the evidence points directly at Vincent, as State Police remind him. Walk refuses to accept that, but it is patently obvious he continues to see his friend through a 15-year-old’s eyes. Vincent is taciturn, doesn’t insist he’s innocent, won’t say much about his whereabouts when Star was killed, and doesn’t appear to care very much about his fate. Even Milton, the local butcher, testifies he overheard a heated argument between Star and Vincent. Also hanging over Vincent’s head is that he killed another inmate during a prison brawl. To top it off, he wants Martha May to defend him, and that’s pretty messy; she specializes in family law and is one of Walk’s former girlfriends. Even she is receptive to the idea that Vincent might be just what he seems: a cold-hearted murderer.


But Walk can't hear any of that. He immediately thinks Darke got to Milton, and begins to poke his nose into Darke’s finances, his real estate dealings, and an offer to buy Vincent’s land. Walk has so many irons in the fire he’d have to be the Hindu goddess Durga to hold them all. Add another arm when Milton’s bloated body is pulled from the water. Walk unearths some shocking secrets about Milton, but that doesn’t make him a perjurer. Nonetheless, Walk again casts his suspicions toward Darke.


Believe me when I say I've only uncoiled several of the loosely bound serpentine kinks in a novel that is equal parts a murder mystery, psychological investigation, and thriller.

Whitaker gets credit for understanding that criminal cases are seldom cut and dried. He also knows enough to steer clear of easy answers, black and white morality, and omniscient investigators. We come to imagine that Walk is really trying to recover his own 15-year-old self to deal with his discomfort with adult life, but is that so? I will say only that the book wends its way toward a towards a shocking and surprising ending that's not entirely of the happy-ever-after variety.


Complexity is the strength and perhaps a curse of We Begin at the End. There are many characters, motives, and personae to be juggled. In essence, Whitaker has constructed a thinking person’s puzzle that some readers may find akin to one of those 12,000-piece jigsaws that sits on library tables and takes a village to assemble. It’s not always a breezy read, but in my estimation, it’s worth plowing through. Whitaker is a very good writer who diverts our attention elsewhere when he tiptoes toward the melodramatic. He is also skillful enough that we often forget that the book’s structure is circular. He tricks us again with a title that can and should be taken several ways.


Many psychologists claim that our basic personalities are formed during childhood, though they generally fudge that assertion by noting that moral development comes a bit later. So, do we “know” a 45-year-old who was our best friend at 15? Don't be sure that you do. Don't be sure that you don't!


Rob Weir


The Mystery of Mystic


No, this is not a ghost story. Last year I posted a short blog on Mystic, Connecticut, after a quick stop for lunch at Mystic Pizza. That you may recall was the site of a 1988 Roberts film that propelled her to fame. I vowed to return to Mystic when I had time.


Recently I did so. I also posted a blog on the negative changes at Mystic Seaport that place it fully in the Not-Worth-the-Money category. So, the open question now is whether one should bother to visit Mystic at all. Short answer: Yes, if you're in the area and have other things to do to occupy the half a day you'll have left.


I say half a day, because Mystic’s other big tourist roll is its aquarium. It's perfectly OK, but it too is overpriced. Depending on the time of day it will set you back between $35-39 and is pricey for an experience that will only take you about 90 minutes. To put it in perspective, the admission charge is the same as the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and there is simply no comparison between the two. You can also make your way to Boston for a better watery experience at the New England Aquarium for a third of the price.




What's left to commend Mystic? First, it's a charming setting in a good place to stroll about. Because of tourists, there were more shops than you would expect for a village of just 4,249 people. I wouldn't call the offerings unique, but browsing is in order and you might find a treasure or two.


Not the Seaport, but it's just up around the bend to the left


Second, the Mystic River has its charms. The walks along its banks on either side of the Bridge off Water Street are short, but give you a sufficiently nautical salt water-mixed-with-fresh taste and you can fortify yourself with ice cream of other treats. On one side of the bridge, you can actually stroll around the inlet to the gated edge of Mystic Seaport, spy a few wooden boats, and keep your Andrew Jacksons safely tucked into your wallet.




Speaking of the bridge–officially known as the Mystic River Bascule Bridge–it's a free cheap thrill to watch it open (every 40 minutes after the hour). It has massive concrete counterweights that rise and lower is if a giant ogre was about the club or someone. Walker' line up behind a trestle to gawk and the whole thing is a much bigger thrill than one might imagine. 


IMHO, though, Mystic’s three big drawls are pizza, Sift Bake Shop, and the Mystic Art Museum. Mystic Pizza, as I previously wrote, is a bit of a fiction, but the ‘za is good. Other pizzerias around town rival it if the wait is too long. In fact, I'd recommend Sift as a better place for lunch. The place is a treat for the eyes as well as the tummy with pastries and sandwiches that are almost too spectacular to eat. One caution: Their giant croissants look better than they are. Stay clear of anything other than plain or chocolate. But the brownies… Oh my! My muffuletta was also superb.


I like small institutions, and the middle of town Mystic Art Association Museum is also a rare thing in town that's free. Check it out. You may not know most of the artists, but in the 1920s/30s Mystic had a vibrant art colony. Below find some of the artists and works I liked. There are more, so feel free to let me know your favorites.




Gertrude Schell "Paris Cafe" 

Earl Kenneth Bates, "Autumnal" Reminds me of Canada's Tom Thompson

Julian Joseph, "Mystic River"

Katharine Forest, "A Day in Noank"

Robert Backman (one of the colony founders), "Reclining Nude," an homage to Ingres' "Grande Odalisque"

Walter Milton Killam, "Noank Fishing Village" 




Art Road Trip Bennington, Vermont I

Performative Acts

Dona Ann McAdams

Through August 15, 2021


Robert Frost in Vermont

Through November 7, 2021


Selections from the Permanent Collection

Bennington Museum of Art


A few weeks ago, we decided to get out of the Pioneer Valley to visit one of our favorite small art museums in Bennington, Vermont. One of the shows there–alas, closing soon–are the photos of Dona Ann McAdams. Her work is often compared to that of Dorothea Lange and Henri Cartier-Bresson in that she is fond of candid photography, though her work is more overtly feminist than that of Lange, the images less soft focus-wise than those of Cartier-Bresson, and ARE more confrontationally political than either of them. The Bennington exhibit samples work from past McAdams retrospectives and is heavy on wit and irony, but also touches upon her deep commitment to social justice.


The gallery has harsh lighting, but here are several images that say more than I can about them. You will notice, though, that McAdams (b. 1954) likes ironic juxtapositions.




Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

The leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sunk to grief.

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.


Few 20th century poets were as celebrated as Robert Frost (1874-1963). His poetic reputation has faded a bit in our jaded age. To some critics, Frost’s works seem antiquated, his rhymes straightforward, his subjects naively apolitical, and his tone homiletic. Yeah, yeah. His are still among the most memorable lines in the English language. Frost’s fame remains such that three New England states–Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont–try to claim him and each has a case, as he lived in all three. There’s a bust of him at Amherst College, where he once taught, and its library is named for him. New Hampshire is one of the places where he failed as a farmer. But given that his physical remains lie in a Bennington churchyard, he taught at Middlebury College, and lived in Shaftsbury part of the year from 1920 on, Vermont has maybe the best claim.



Bennington has a show linked to Frost’s time in Vermont. How, you might wonder, does an art museum display a poet? A few objects are obvious, such as his chair and portable writing desk. That assemblage looks all the world like an outtake from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.


For much of the rest, though, curators chose paintings and graphics that evoke Frost’s favorite subjects: the New England landscape, weather, its beauty, and the precariousness of existence in what can be an unforgiving region. The images come with snippets of his poetry and there are several sound files of him reading his works. Here are several evocative images. 




Above: Top to Bottom--Rockwell Kent "Puritan Church;" Arthur Burton, "Putney Melting;" Lucius Lankes, "Vermont Farmhouse"



I’ll be frank, though. The show is too text heavy for an art museum, so if you’re the impatient sort, take a notebook with you, jot down titles of the mentioned poems, find them later, and savor them at your leisure. Here’s a famous one–“Fire and Ice”– that’s  distressingly appropriate for both the flinty hardness of the New England landscape and a nod to our time of plague and climate change.    


Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.


No pictures are allowed in the Grandma Moses exhibit which is housed in the refurbished schoolhouse wing. So instead, here’s an eclectic sample of images from the rest of the permanent collection–just for the heck of it.


From the Vermont Modernists: Francis Colburn, “Family Group” (1939); John Atherton, “The Ore Pit” (1947).




Ever wonder what happens to displays at a World’s Fair when the gates close for the last time. Sometimes they end up in museums. This over-the-top ceramic was first seen at the 1853 Crystal Palace fair in London, which is often said to be the first modern world’s fair. Bennington was once a center of ceramics manufacturing, but now this piece looks like a harbinger of Gilded Age excess. 




Speaking of the Gilded Age, Brattleboro is at the other end Molly Stark Trail, but Bennington holds a fine example of an Estey organ such as a Gilded Age family seeking instant cred might have plopped in the parlor, even if no one could actually play it.




Finally, when did the ideal of American democracy disappear? I’d have to cogitate upon that, but it was alive in 1927, when Harriet Miller titled this sculpture “Democracy.”