You may have seen him—the man on the commuter train to Los Angeles—leaning over his laptop, glasses slipping down his nose, wired in, absorbed, on deadline, not to be disturbed. Because he wears a suit and tie, you may assume he calculates quarterly sales results due on arrival downtown. It would be easy to make this mistake. The truth is he’s two thousand miles and forty years away.
It’s 1978 near the Guatemala-Honduras border. A stranger, who appeared out of nowhere, has been severely beaten and a 19-year-old Peter Nielsen—the man you saw on the train—carries the wounded stranger to a remote village clinic, his clothes wet with the stranger’s blood. Later that night, the beaten man dies. On another night in Gualan, Guatemala, the Mayan villagers watch the World Cup on black and white TVs, giving the deserted streets a bluish glow. When Argentina scores the winning goal, the village erupts in “one full-throated cry of joy.”
What Nielsen gives us in All That I’ve Seen—his recent book of essays—are vivid encounters with both life’s ordinary marvels and its harshest edges. Such intimate connections about what matters most—perhaps most immediate in the essay form—are the reason I read books.
Twenty years ago Peter sent me an early version of what he called “the Guatemala book,” and then flew me out to Los Angeles to talk through it. I read the manuscript two or three times, marked it up and made notes. Then we stepped through the book together at his home, on the beach, and over cheese burgers and milkshakes. Peter didn’t need my help. He is a born storyteller and his deep dive into his Guatemala experiences had taught him to write with searing honesty and humor. What we both needed was the reassurance of being part of this writing tribe. We laughed about it—the years of solitary scribbling in notebooks or tapping away on computers. This supposedly most lonely of pursuits turns out to be one of those best-kept secrets. That is, how nourishing this ritual can be, how if you get down even one good sentence, it charges you up for the rest of the day, even changes the way you live your life.
What we can all read now are these Guatemala pieces plus much more. His childhood in southern California comes into it, as well as loyal friends, wise children, the best wife you could hope for, and a mid-career gig with the FDIC closing banks. Several pieces about the recession of 2008 lift the curtain on scenes few of us could ever witness: sudden weekend “deployments” to Georgia or Alabama or Florida where banks collapsed. FDIC representatives and bank employees work side-by-side through long weekends, plowing through tedious paperwork and sharing fast-food meals. The threat of a run on the bank looms over all.
There are also some humorous romps—an all-night drive across the Nevada desert and an ill-advised tuck (or should I say, tumble) down a precipitous ski slope. And summers on a desert ranch in Payson, Utah, where Nielsen’s grandfather teaches him to “trust” himself, usually with a nasty job like cleaning bat guano out of the farmhouse attic or rounding up cattle to “the squeeze” to be branded, dehorned and castrated.
For me the Guatemala essays form the core of the book because this was the genesis of Peter’s urgent need to write and he refers to Guatemala in many of the other pieces. He was driven to capture the blue skies against green jungle mountains, the smoking volcanoes, plates of steaming beans and scrambled eggs, bottle caps “mashed into the dirt roads” by buses and taxis, warm rain rising up “from the cobbled streets like they’d been holding their breath and now had a moment to exhale.” Guatemala, the place, lives and breathes along with its people—the “old men with leathery skin . . . worn but not tired . . . unyielding,” crowds of people that hum and click in ancient dialects, the spices and dirt and rotting sugarcane. And the “gaping darkness” of the jungle nights.
Nielsen tells the legend of Siguanaba, a crying woman who wanders the night, weeping, washing clothes in the river. Siguanaba embodies the misfortune and uncertainty faced by all people, the “abrupt, matter-of-fact, unflinching evil that was out there.” Nielsen sees his share of this darkness—holding a dead infant in his arms while a desperate family begs him to bring the baby back to life, accompanying a native midwife to set a young boy’s broken arm or rub salve into a villager’s open wounds amid moans of pain. There is darkness, yes. But it wasn’t all there was out there.
What is not in this book is the story of Peter’s return to Guatemala at age fifty—a surprise trip planned by his wife Kathie and his grown children. They all knew he needed to go back, to make peace with this place. And he did go. But this is his story to tell. We can all hope another set of essays is in the works.