Many of us feel we know and love John Grogan's rambunctious dog Marley and, by extension, Grogan himself. The author treats us to more of his hilarious and heartbreaking storytelling in this memoir centered on his beloved parents.
The senior Grogans lived their lives around the Catholic Church. They attended mass, collected and displayed religious objects in their home (at one time, John counted 42 Virgin Marys alone) and entertained priests. On vacations, they trekked to holy miracle sites. John's parents were deeply religious, always guided by the Church. Immaculate Conception was a fact, and each of the Grogan children honored that miracle in their names: Mary Josephine, Timothy Joseph, Michael Joseph and John Joseph.
Young John was a rambunctious handful who had a hard time even sitting still. He recalls his young boyhood as a "dreamy, wondrous time," filled with his warm, loving parents, his siblings and his many neighborhood pals. The setting for his childhood was the marvelous Harbor Hills near Detroit, where the boys congregated on The Outlot, a grassy field surrounding a boat basin. In the summer, John and his buddies swam in the lake. But no matter what the Grogan children did, they realized they were first and foremost Catholics. That knowledge comforted them when they were very young, but it came along with an expectation that would haunt John his entire life. The elder Grogans dreamed that their kids would grow up as deeply believing, practicing Catholics. And that turned out to be a problem.
Even as a boy, John had issues with Catholic expectations. In 1964, the nuns at his Our Lady of Refuge school began preparing his class for a milestone: their First Holy Confession. John was just a second-grader but already had lust issues. He was smitten with the next-door neighbor, Mrs. Selahowski, who spent every sunny moment working on her tan in a tiny two-piece bathing suit. John knew that coveting his neighbor's wife was a grave mortal sin. Yet he managed to top it by imagining a bit of a strip tease performed by his teacher, young Sister Mary Lawrence. Although the disrobing was only in his mind, the physical effect was quite visible to all when he was called upon to stand and read. How could he discuss his rides on the "Mortal Sin Express" in the confessional? John soothed himself with the reminder that confessions are anonymous. But on the big day, a mishap made it all too obvious to the priest that it was John Grogan in the confessional, resulting in yet another side-splitting episode.
THE LONGEST TRIP HOME follows John's life and his relationship with his mom and dad up to the present. When John leaves home he also leaves the church, which puts him deep in a quandary regarding his parents and their beliefs. The resulting rift will continue to trouble him as he marries a woman who isn't Catholic, has children he chooses to guide in his own way, and then sees his parents decline into age and ill health. His yearning to fulfill their ultimate dreams is always hopeless and sometimes heartbreaking.
This real-life coming-of-age story is a tender and touching tribute to parents Grogan loves and respects. Many anecdotes are hilarious. Some may well move readers to tears, such as when his super-conservative parents express pride in him for publishing a subversive underground newspaper. He displays his knack with comical descriptions to great advantage (he likens making out with an orthodontically challenged girl to "French kissing with a power tool") while giving us much to ponder.
At one point, after a disastrous sail with his father in which he realizes Dad is getting old, Grogan says that "there are moments in life that fade from memory so quickly they are gone almost before they are over. Then there are those that stick, the ones we carry with us through the years like parcels of clarity stitched close to our hearts, becoming part of who we are." Readers will be grateful for this poignant treasure chest of moments that stuck for John Grogan --- and to him for sharing them with us.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on October 1, 2008