A review of Avoid the Day: A New Nonfiction in Two Movements by Jay Kirk

Reviewed by Michael Washburn

Avoid the Day: A New Nonfiction in Two Movements
By Jay Kirk
Harper Perennial
July 28, 2020, ISBN: 9780062356178, Paperback, 384 pages, $17.99

Jay Kirk’s nonfiction book Avoid the Day is one of the more inventive and wide-ranging autobiographical works you are likely to come across, even if you subscribe to the notion that most if not all forms of writing are on some level an excrescence of the author’s past. Slivers of Kirk’s sometimes funny, sometimes traumatic personal history overlap and complement and reflect one another throughout the book. He spends a good part of the book searching in Transylvania for a lost manuscript, purportedly the work of none other than the great Béla Bartók, and spends another large chunk of it organizing strange activities on the deck of a cruise ship navigating some of the world’s remotest waters. Interwoven with these threads are passages in which Kirk frets over his seriously ill father, who, in one video call, strikes him as looking, in Kirk’s words, about a million years old. 

Disparate as these activities may seem, the experiences on the cruise ship present an analogue to certain of Kirk’s earlier endeavors. He and a companion decide that they want to lens an indie horror flick in which the protagonists wake up on a cruise ship and find it empty except for themselves, at which point strange encounters and sinister doings commence. In order to realize this Twilight-Zone scenario, they plan to film in the early hours of the morning, when the decks are likely to be bare. Hence the title of the book. To do your most audacious creative work, choose a time when most of the world, or at least that part of it you are passing through, is asleep. Avoid the day. But even when taking this general approach, it turns out their efforts at times do require the cooperation of large numbers of passengers and crew. 

The efforts of the spunky indie filmmakers are as amusing and oddly sympathetic as those of the doomed young film crew in that seminal 1999 found-footage shocker, The Blair Witch Project. They also have something of the bold spirit and gumption of amateur filmmaker Marc Borchardt as exhibited in a comparable indie effort from that same year, American Movie. But, in this book, there is an eeriness to the deserted sets that evokes the pervasive melancholy of living with loss or prolonged absence, as anyone who has grappled with the illness or death of a parent knows, or the deep spiritual frustration of devoting one’s efforts to the pursuit of something obviously valuable and maddeningly elusive, like the manuscript of a great composer. That manuscript comes to represent for Kirk, and to an extent for the reader, an object of a kind of Freudian transference: the locus of one’s fiercest emotions, something one needs to own, to have in one’s life, as profoundly important and irreplaceable as a parent.

The highly unusual experiences Kirk relates may seem far outside the shared experience of most readers, but at the same time they channel common if not universal human perceptions, needs, and agonies. No wonder that British nature writer Helen Macdonald, in a recent interview with the Boston Globe, calls the book not only “one of the strangest pieces of creative nonfiction I’ve read” but also “a hallucinogenic, deeply personal story.” Macdonald herself is the author of a bestselling memoir about grieving the loss of her father. It is not hard to imagine why Avoid the Day spoke so directly to her. 

Avoid the Day will also remind readers of how loss, sadness, anguish, and difficulties of adapting to realities can breed ever more serious problems. Kirk comes to exhibit a dependence on drugs in the benzodiazepine class, the same class of medication that led to nearly fatal addiction and months of agonizing illness and intermittently effective treatment for Jordan Peterson, the Canadian clinical psychologist, professor, and online phenomenon. Sometimes, this book will remind readers, it is literally possible to kill the patient to cure the disease. 

Kirk, a writer for publications such as GQ and the New York Times Magazine, has demonstrated fearlessness in setting out to write the kind of unclassifiable work from which all to many publishers these days may shy away, but which will nonetheless resonate even or especially with readers who in a strictly literal sense have never had adventures like the ones Kirk narrates. Such are the universality of his themes.

About the reviewer: Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We’re Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020).