Some friendships have a way of sticking with you, no matter the distance or the years.
In “The Crazy Wisdom: Memoir of a Friendship,” author Christopher Shaw explores one such relationship with Niskayuna native Jon Cody, who died in 2015.
“Jon was an oversized influence in my life for reasons I never really clearly understood because he was an exasperating, frustrating and flawed character for all his attractive qualities,” Shaw said.
The friendship started miles and miles from where it would have made sense to start: with a chance encounter at the Stony Creek Inn in the early 1970s. Their lives had run parallel before that; their families knew each other and they’d grown up nearby one another; Shaw in Schenectady and Cody in Niskayuna.
“He sat on a stool, half-turned toward me in his twisted way, his hair a great blonde mane cascading down his back, his beard equally blonde and profuse. His left arm hung limp by his side. He was just under six feet, lightly built but strong,” Shaw wrote of that first meeting.
It brought about something akin to déjà vu for Shaw.
“It was also slightly strange, Howdy-Doody-ish, a bit too goofy and vaguely familiar in a way I could never exactly place or describe,” Shaw writes.
At the time, Shaw had dropped out of the University of Toronto with the intent to pursue writing. Cody was a slightly older figure, rugged figure, who lived in the backcountry, owned and operated leather goods shops and often indulged in and sold cannabis.
“I showed up in the woods, dropped out of college, fully intending just to go live in a cabin and write. . . And here was a real character but I didn’t have the craft, I didn’t have the distance at the time, the perspective to really [write about him],” Shaw said.
Sometime after that first meeting, Shaw went to visit Cody, who lived in a cabin in West Stony Creek and was greeted with a sign that read “Free beer and go-go girls.” The former was supplied, the latter was more of a joke, yet that sign set the tone for the free-wheeling visit, filled with sprawling story-telling and smoking.
“Nothing about the story made the slightest sense. But I knew my universe had just doubled in size, as when the ice goes out of a northern lake,” Shaw wrote.
Shaw eventually became a caretaker of Cody’s cabin and stopped by whenever he wanted to, often meeting some of the more unusual characters in Cody’s circle: “. . . petty criminals, dope dealers, welfare fraudsters, resort owners and restaurateurs who supplied the thriving dope market on the side, assorted oddballs with whom he had deep histories I never entirely disentangled, along with society matrons and their daughters, lawyers and judges, local pols, debutantes from Albany to Lake Placid and over into Vermont ski country,” Shaw wrote.
Later, Cody hired Shaw to work at his leather shop and after work, Shaw would read aloud to Cody, often Jack London novels and other classic works. Shaw reflects on how those stories and the experience of reading them aloud with Cody: “I had always loved to be read to, had read out loud to my campers as a camp counselor, in the evening in our cabins and out on the trail, and I still do. But reading to Cody tuned my ear in a new way to writing as speech, to the music of sentences and the montage of concrete things, places, names and pictures.”
In the ensuing years, as the book details, the two began and aborted an outdoor outfitting service after an ill-fated canoe trip and made it through run-ins with bikers and other scary characters. It also details Shaw’s journey to getting sober, publishing books, becoming a father and getting a steady job.
The story is incredibly personal, yet it’s also rooted in the dialects, culture and geography of the Adirondacks, with flashes of Schenectady references and memories. It’s similar to Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It,” the pace clips right along and it’s careful not to overstay its welcome.
Shaw started writing it shortly after Cody’s 2015 death, the cause of which was never officially identified, though friends and caretakers had theories, as Shaw explores in the book.
By that time in Shaw’s career, he’d had the years of writing and life experience to capture the character Cody was and the twists and turns of their friendship.
Of course, in doing so, he had to be honest about not only his past failings and Cody’s.
“If you’re going to tell the story, you kind of have to go there. I’ve done enough work on myself over the last 30 years that I almost had the insight, skill and vocabulary to do that,” Shaw said.
“The point of the book is to show these two men trying to evolve into a state of some sort of an acceptable maleness, out of ignorance and impulse. It was rough going, not completely successful, but you can’t say that we weren’t trying and we weren’t supporting each other in that effort to some extent.”
“The Crazy Wisdom: Memoir of a Friendship” was published earlier this year by Miller Pond Books. For more information visit outskirtspress.com.