A New York City intellectual recalls his childhood in Davenport, Iowa.
This debut memoir by widely published essayist Miller aspires to fall somewhere between John Kennedy Toole and David Sedaris, but there is little humor in this stream-of-consciousness narrative about the minutia of Midwestern life. The author attempts to lionize a supposedly tough childhood that turns out to be quite ordinary, despite Miller’s best efforts to lend pregnant pause to every mundane detail. The mere choosing of a Christmas tree inspires this passage: “The obvious connection between this emaciated pine and Charlie Brown’s unfortunate tree-lot pick was not voiced by anyone. Or, I should say, could not be voiced, lest we admit our life was a cartoon, and ridiculous as circumstances often were, always, on some level, they remained very real, too.” For the most part, we are bystanders to the panoramic film playing out behind young Miller’s eyes, as he aspires to be a writer and makes grand observations about his family and neighbors. His Writers’ Studio, a group of misfit scribblers, is given surprisingly short shrift, but much drama is inspired by the author’s three “mean sisters,” one of whom is ultimately the victim of her own tragic story. Miller also gives much play to elderly neighbors like Mr. Hickey, a cigar-puffing widower whose ephemera spills across the pages like a still life. There’s no doubt that the author has a gift for language, but the recklessness with which he wields his talent takes the spark out of the story. There is also a degree to which he attempts to demonize his now deeply estranged family—he deliberately distanced himself for years while simultaneously wallowing in his own remembrances—that makes the memoir’s primary subject come off as self-pitying and thin-skinned.
A brick of a memoir that carries very little real weight.