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Displaying heroism in face of profound loss

Deep need is met in uncommon ways in two brave and splendidly - written new books - each an act of personal heroism stemming from profound loss.

Cheryl Strayed's is a memoir, "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail," while Sarah Manguso's is a lament, "The Guardians: An Elegy." Both hit the mark, one at length, the other with far fewer words, Strayed being the prose writer here, Manguso the poet.

"Wild" is the one making big waves. It is high on best-seller lists; is the first pick for Oprah's new book club, and has been optioned for film with Reese Witherspoon's production company.

"My mom was dead," Strayed repeats over and over early on in the memoir. "Everything I ever imagined about myself had disappeared into the crack of her last breath."

Clearly a young woman of extremes, Strayed becomes "unmoored by sorrow" and "ravenous for love." Her marriage (to a patient young man named Paul) is faltering; her siblings are elsewhere, she is dabbling in drugs and becoming a veteran of one-night stands.

So what does she do? Something just as extreme, unwise - and probably undoable: She sets out, alone and with little hiking experience, to walk the Pacific Crest Trail.

"It took me years ... To be the woman my mother raised," she writes. "I would suffer. I would suffer. I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods ..."

From the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to the Bridge of the Gods spanning the Columbia River to Washington State, Strayed makes her solitary way - and it is riveting reading.

"If your Nerve deny you - /Go above your Nerve " she quotes Emily Dickinson at the start of a chapter during which other hikers ask her to join them and she sends them away as "the point of my trip is that I'm out here to do it alone."

Wild animals, including a bear; mountain snows; raw skin; loneliness, and a slow awakening all come to Strayed, 26 at the time she hikes the "PCT." It is 1995, four years after her 45-year-old mother's death. Strayed's youthful self-involvement can be trying here, and the book is overlong - but it contains such treasures as how Strayed, "a woman with a hole in her heart," came by her surname:

"There was no question that if I divorced Paul, I'd choose a new name for myself," she explains. "I couldn't continue to be Cheryl Hyphen-Hyphen, nor could I go back to the name I had had in high school and be the girl I used to be ... Nothing fit until one day the word strayed came into my mind. Immediately, I looked it up in the dictionary and knew it was mine. Its layered definitions spoke directly to my life and also struck a poetic chord: to wander from the proper path, to deviate from the direct course, to be lost, to become wild, to be without a mother or father, to be without a home, to move about aimlessly in search of something, to diverge or digress."

By her memoir's end, Strayed has grown and begun to flourish with, to her credit, no burning bush. That she waited a good 15 years, or more, to write "Wild," is another plus. This is a book not only by a wonderful writer but by a mature woman.

But it is a book that stems from losses Strayed only tells us of: A reader does not get to know her mother, her former husband or her siblings.

Not so with Sarah Manguso's "The Guardians" - for this is an elegy for a young man of such apparent vibrance and joie de vivre that he fairly leaps from the pages of the book.

Manguso was his friend and begins "The Guardians" with a quote from New York's Riverdale Press: "An unidentified white man was struck and instantly killed by a Metro-North train last night as it pulled into the station on West 254th Street."

In her elegy, Manguso paints the man. Harris J. Wulfson, with sensitive, precise strokes, as a person with an incalculable talent - for music, for friendship and for disguising anguish:

"What I carry now - it brightens sometimes, without warning - is not his pain. This pain is mine, and unlike my friend, I don't try to hide it. I let it get all over everything. I yell in my studio. I cry on the subway. I tell everyone I know that my friend threw himself under a train."

Manguso, like Strayed, didn't write her elegy close to the event: "I could have waited until the end of my life to try to understand what happened on that day, saved it for last so I could know its full effect, but instead I waited what seems an arbitrary, meaningless length of time."

Her point in remembering it all now, she says, is "so I can see he really is dead." This involves recounting the day Harris died, a day during which he left a psychiatric facility and spent 10 hours of "lost time" before plunging to his death.

"I want to say that ten hours are missing from Harris's life, but that isn't right," she posits. "They were in his life. They just weren't in anyone else's."

In vignette and in short, sometimes chopped, sentences, Manguso weaves a tapestry of a young man with an extraordinary mind and sense of others who - and this is her theory - comes to suffer so excruciatingly from the side-effects of anti-psychotic medication that he has but one choice: To stop it.

With this thought, she sees his death with poetic beauty: "Harris met the train with his body, offered it his body. / The train drove into his body. It drove against his body./ It sent him from his body./The conductor went down onto the track and touched the body and lifted and carried the body."

Manguso believes she knows something of what Harris was thinking and feeling on this day - for, she reveals, she, too, has taken anti-psychotic medications and has encountered a condition called akathisia which, when severe, has been linked to suicide.

"If I'd figured this out," she muses, "years ago, and if I'd found a way to communicate with Harris after he was committed, and if he were in fact given a medication that induced akathisia, and if I'd reminded him that it was just a side-effect of the wrong medicine, he might not have died."

But he did, despite the fact that "his three psychotic breaks occupied almost no part of his actual life" - and Manguso, although not family and feeling guilty about that, offers all manner of thoughts here not only about death but also about grief.

What is grief for?" she asks, considering mechanical, evolutionary and religious explanations before concluding the "real explanation" is: "Love abides. There is no other solace."

Karen Brady is a retired News columnist

***

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

By Cheryl Strayed

Knopf

315 pages, $25.95

***

The Guardians: An Elegy

By Sarah Manguso

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

111 pages, $20