…[He] takes a trip to heaven and talks with all sorts of dead people. It’s like some kind of travel book. In Busy Dying, a character’s offhand comment on the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg’s Spiritual Diary may as well describe Obenzinger’s fictional memoir itself: only in an apocalyptic 1968 could heaven and hell converge. Life is rhythmically punctuated by death, just as memory is punctuated by moments of revelation, in which the characters are transformed by sudden glimpses of the world beyond knowledge or language. A young handyman believes he sees the finger of God; a girl confined to bed by a nervous disorder feels blessed by the splendid visible and invisible worlds; a college student dives out of his ninth-floor window to, after a poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez “catch the stars more quickly.”
Obenzinger, like Conrad and Woolf, is attracted to the dark, unknown realm of which our daily life is only a mirror image. The Columbia strike in 1968, the centerpiece of the memoir, represents such an effort to reach the beyond. The students fail to write poems during their occupation of the president’s office, realizing that the breach of social semantics needs “a language no one had yet invented.” For Obenzinger, in particular, the search for a new language has tangible implications. The son of Polish Jewish immigrants, he has lost Polish, his mother tongue, and Yiddish, his father’s language. Haunted by his brother’s untimely death as well as all the deaths before and after, Obenzinger inherited his father’s “survivor’s guilt” reminiscent of Lord Jim. With the Dada practice of inflicting the Biblical ten plagues on Columbia campus, he was reenacting the history of his lost ancestors.
The travel to the other world ultimately confirms life. The memoir starts with the death of Obenzinger’s mother, which, to the author’s amazement, transforms her back to a pretty young girl at peace. It ends with the discovery of his father’s youthful poems, where, alone in the strange New World, the father recognizes himself in his son.
— Lu Chen, Brooklyn Rail, April 2008
Busy Dying is so true and funny and unexpected and sweet and profound and very deeply moving. As the cliche goes: I laughed and I cried–for real!
— Luc Sante
No one tells the story of the Columbia University variation of Apocalypse 1968–its prelude and its up-to-date fallout (e.g., This Is Your Life)–better than Poet-and-Communard-in-Residence of that and other histories, Hilton Obenzinger. When Politics meant something other than Brute Force, Obenzinger was there, observing and making it happen, like one breath in, another out. In deft, benign, deep and often hilarious prose, he has kept the faith.
– Bill Berkson
Hilton Obenzinger is an American original. His lost histories are acts of legerdemain and cunning–mixing truth and imagination in ways rarely seen before.
– Paul Auster
In almost all this wonderful memoir, Hilton Obenzinger has been true to his life and the drawing is strong and life-size. If he forgets that I was beaten up, he remembers quite well what a brat I was. His skepticism is one thing; the pathos can be very convincing. It’s a book about the Holocaust survivors and the price they paid to change their deepest names. A poet, as in the marvellous “NY on Fire,” Obenzinger does something better than research, he tries with dayglo and phosphorescent humor to make that time breathe again. It had to be called a novel, though like baggy novels, almost anything can be put into this book and not, as his teacher Koch once said, smell it up. Like a city at its center, and human pluck and revolt along all other edges.
Obenzinger’s l968 is a book that is polarized between an anarchic joy–Rudd giving himself up next door to the author’s father–and the development of an integrity. Obenzinger divides the book into something delightful as short paragraphs in Machado or in Kawabata. The Yukon is exotic enough, much of the truth of the book is watching him become a writer, with his father’s few poems, a poet who hates false poetry, a true poet who hates pedants and carries his whole being lightly.
– David Shapiro