Memoir is a genre laden with pitfalls waiting to ensnare writers who dare to think they may have a story worth sharing with the world. It’s difficult to be objective about one’s own story. What may seem compelling to us about our lives may bore an outside observer to tears, while they hunger for more details about things we felt inconsequential. Memoir is also often the domain of personal tragedy and sensationalist melodrama, the kind of story that may be profoundly affecting for the author but hardly unique and typically lacking in the kind of depth and insight that captivates readers.
American Lives, a sampler of short works and excerpts gathered together from the similarly titled University of Nebraska Press book series, demonstrates many of these shortcomings. In a few places, however, there are flashes of brilliance that make up for the collection’s drabness and truly do introduce fresh, new voices that have something to say.
Were you to judge American Lives by the first four stories, the grimness and brutality depicted on the pages may have you considering expatriation. The first 40 pages feature torture, public humiliation, murder, drowning, self-destructive alcoholism, and suicide — a veritable smorgasbord of writing workshop faux pas. The reliance on acts of transgression and tragedy is meant to be provocative, but in many cases merely serves to distract from weak prose and a dearth of ideas.
Though common sense may say that such stories are the hardest to tell, they are, in fact, the easiest. The template for confessionals like these is well ingrained in our culture and psyche, and the startling, emotional gravity of situations like the cavalcade of grief that opens American Lives is meant to shoulder the burden of the narrative, freeing the writer from expending effort developing a fresh story from scratch.
Thankfully, it’s not all so dire. Editor Alicia Christensen has stumbled upon a few gems that are prime examples of how to write memoir well.
Brenda Serotte’s “Fortuna”, pulled from her 2006 book The Fortune Teller’s Kiss, is a beautifully written profile of the author’s grandmother, a true character in every sense of the word. Serotte’s Nona is a fortune telling Sephardic Jew from the old country who dishes out evil eyes and folk medicine in her mid-century, Lower East Side enclave. The author assembles a portrait of her grandmother using her own fractured childhood memories and the contributions of her parents, creating a figure that seems larger than life, a mystic, transcendent creature who seems like something out of a fairy tale.
Nona is grounded in reality, however, thanks to Serotte’s pitch perfect descriptions of ’50s New York City and its diverse crew of denizens. “Fortuna” succeeds because it’s a touching slice of life that deals honestly with the meaning of family and explores the rich melting pot of cultures that Serotte grew up in. She moves seamlessly from her grandmother’s Turkish treats to her mother’s Spanish vocabulary, placing them alongside Nona’s Ashkenazi clients and the Irish cops who busted the makeshift medium for “engaging in gypsy practices.”
Eli Hastings’ “Good, Alright, Fine” (from Falling Room) could easily have been a disaster, dealing as it does with such well worn tropes as drug addiction and disability, but it works in spite of those stacked odds. The reason is Hastings’ good humor, and his ability to discuss such topics without self-pity or self-importance.
The story concerns the author, his brother, and their father, who following a serious fall and broken back, struggles to fight the ever-present pain and becomes too attached to his medication. It’s not really an addiction chronicle, however. It’s more of a tale of adventure, with Hastings and his family traveling to Mexico to take advantage of their liberal prescription drug policies or bringing their dad to detox so he can get a grip on his overmedication.
Each anecdote powerfully conveys the severity of their struggle, but also shows that these people have real affection for one another and that there is no judgment or recrimination at the heart of the story. Hastings finds levity amidst tragedy and it feels a lot like real life.
The same can be said for Marvin Arnett’s fabulous “The Boys of Summer”, from Pieces of Life’s Crazy Quilt. Though it deals with less harrowing subject matter, the depiction of Arnett’s father as he avoids an Angora sweater scam that entraps many of their neighbors is full of warm pride.
As a collection, American Lives cannot be judged harshly for its varying quality. In fact, the diversity of opinion and experience it contains is the volume’s greatest strength. Ultimately, the failings that memoirs are so prone to make it more of a book to scan than to cozy up with, but the handful of authors who stand out, Serotte, Hastings, and Arnett, are worth further exploration. Their stories here are just the tip of the iceberg, and American Lives can be credited in pointing more readers toward their impressive tales.