by Kelly Milner Halls
Readers have Spokane native Terry Davis to thank for Vision Quest, a 1979 book fellow author John Irving called "the truest novel about growing up since The Catcher in the Rye, and a better novel about wrestling and wrestlers" than his own bestseller, The World According to Garp.
Rereleased by Eastern Washington University Press this month, Vision Quest follows Louden Swain (played by Matthew Modine in the 1985 film adaptation) through his near-obsessive quest to challenge a mysterious rival.
"It is a tough, funny tale about a young man who refuses to take life on anyone's terms but his own," says critically acclaimed Spokane novelist and long-time Davis friend, Chris Crutcher. "It remains, to this day, a bible for many high school wrestling coaches and their charges."
Former wrestler and Spokane Valley resident John Flores agrees. "It was a ritual for our high school team," the 26-year-old fondly remembers. "Before any big match, our coach would read from the book or show us the movie. Vision Quest always gave us a motivational boost."
Davis, a seasoned high school wrestler and one-time wrestling coach himself, has always been moved and humbled by the legendary status his novel has achieved. "It's almost overwhelming," he admits, "and deeply appreciated."
As a competitor and a writer, wrestling illustrates a core "cause-and-effect" philosophy that has helped guide Davis's life.
"I learned, as a wrestler, that hard work pays off; that patience is necessary to any task; that there is always someone -- or some thing -- quicker or stronger; that winning or losing with grace is more important than winning, because in the end, none of us comes off of this mat with his hand in the air. They drag us off."
Two more coming-of-age novels, Mysterious Ways and If Rock and Roll Were a Machine, followed the story of Louden Swain into publication. His obvious skill as a writer and his academic prowess won Davis a teaching position in the English department of Minnesota State University, Mankato, where he currently still lives and works. Success was his.
But it was the studied determination of a warrior's heart, not literary fame, that carried the author though his next great challenge -- clinical depression.
Davis admits there was always a manic quality to his youthful behavior. "But when I hit 40," he says, "the chemical imbalance in my body really tipped. I could feel it, something inside me had slipped or dislocated. It wasn't a quality of character. Something was wrong."
The once gregarious writer and educator gradually sunk into a self-imposed isolation. "I hated to be out in the world with other people because I felt inferior. I knew this was crazy, but knowledge couldn't relieve the feeling."
Rage followed misery. "I never hurt myself or any other person or animal," he says. "But I threw a number of wet-dry vacs across various rooms of the house and shop and destroyed them. And there were times working on a motorcycle when I'd pick up a screwdriver and feel -- know -- that it wanted to drive itself through my eye and into my head."
Sheer will and anti-depressants contained Davis's illness and made it possible for him to continue as a gifted teacher. But his writing energy suffered a temporary paralysis. "I had to fight it with every strength in me," he says. "I hated myself. I didn't believe I deserved any good things."
Like Louden Swain, Davis continued his quest for physical and emotional balance, in the face of fatigue and struggle. Fifteen years passed, and the search continued, until he found Chicago's Pfeiffer Treatment Center in the summer of 2001. "A friend called one night and told me the clinic had changed, and in fact saved his life," Davis says. "I called them the next day."
Six weeks later -- the first available appointment -- Davis and his wife Becky drove from Minnesota to the Chicago suburb of Naperville. "They tested my blood, took hair and urine samples, analyzed the lengthy history of my symptoms," he says.
Diagnostics revealed the wall of Davis's small intestine was not absorbing minerals properly. Dietary supplements could correct the malabsorption. "The nurse who interviewed me said my rage was the result of a zinc deficiency and that it would be the first thing to go away, once I started taking the nutrients. She was right."
Since the Pfeiffer Treatment Center opened in 1989, more than 9,000 patients suffering from depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders and other crippling conditions have been diagnosed and treated based on the biochemical aspects of human biology by balancing body and brain chemistry.
On the road to full recovery, Davis has since completed a new novel, The Silk Ball, a synopsis of the Vision Quest sequel and will soon tour the country with the rerelease of Louden Swain's original timeless story. He'll be at Auntie's tomorrow night.
"It hasn't been easy," he admits. But like Swain, Davis refused to shrink in the wake of a dangerous foe. "Life is hard for most of us. It's a competition," he says. "If that means publishing a novel or getting through the day without losing my temper, I'll work hard and go to bed tired.
"Life is a match we cannot win," he insists. "But we can end the match with grace. I always will fight to be the warrior that wins or loses with grace."