A well-crafted and poignant memoir about a chaotic childhood in the Bronx.
Eschewing sappiness in favor of sparse but vivid prose, McSherry (Bronx Astronomy, 1991) documents his first few decades with four siblings, very little money and two parents whose respective mental illnesses intensified as the years progress. The narrative unfolds in short chapters of brief, almost photographic scenes that are grouped into thematic phases of the author’s life. Part I focuses on McSherry’s early childhood, during which his fervently Catholic mother struggles to keep the family afloat in the face of her husband’s escalating alcoholism and periodic disappearances. In the midst of a life filled with relocations, food stamps and absent parents, the young James dreams of becoming an actor, a priest and finally, a poet. The author’s sense of pacing is exquisite: Not until Part II do we–along with the teenage James–come to grasp the fact that his mother’s quirks indicate her slide into dementia. Similarly, as James learns the circumstances surrounding his father’s violent death, the reader simultaneously realizes the severity of his degradation. The penultimate section of the book reveals the final unraveling of his tenuous family networks as he reaches his early 20s. Here, McSherry’s detached style becomes a bit too extreme–after 100 engrossing pages, the author’s inner world suddenly seems opaque–but the final section offers redemption. The author combines flashbacks with a quietly moving account of the end of his mother’s life, highlighting her distinctive virtues and resurrecting the reader’s faith in his pathos. Although his story is certainly unique, McSherry’s book has much to say about the nobility and struggle that characterize every individual life.
A deeply affecting, surprisingly unsentimental description of surviving–and transcending–a tumultuous upbringing.