In Sniechowski's (Living Your Love Every Day, 2016, etc.) autobiographical debut novel, a young boy struggles with the dogmatic and austere religion of his Old World Polish family.
Jim is only 9 years old in 1950, and so the chaotic, alcohol-drenched weekly family gatherings at his home can be overwhelming affairs. His maternal grandparents, Anna and Antoni, immigrated to Detroit from rural Poland, by way of Ellis Island, and brought their farming-peasant ways and rigid devotion to Catholicism with them. The weekly parties are typically tempestuous and artfully rendered: rowdy, brimming with intramural rivalry and repressed emotion. They’re also full of the family’s Polish character: they live in a Polish neighborhood, worship in a Polish parish, and often speak what author James calls “Engpolsh”—a messy hybrid of English and Polish. Jim longs to win the elusive approval of his father, an emotionally distant but volatile man nicknamed “Ketchup” for the way that his face and neck redden when he’s enraged. The games they play—poker and pinochle—are only superficially playful, as they’re also the means by which the competitive family members assert their dominance. Violence also haunts these meetings; at one point, Jim’s father intervenes when a neighbor, Aleksandr, savagely strikes his own daughter. Apparently, her offense was wearing pants; throughout the book, the author powerfully depicts the group’s deeply ingrained sexism, as even the women tacitly accept the idea that men are superior. He also effectively shows how his family’s religious devotion is mixed with less spiritual elements, including pride, and how that leaves plenty of room for the vitriolic expression of racial bigotry. This is the first installment in the author’s Leaving Home Trilogy, and it’s a beautifully impressionistic novel that he describes as “autobiographical fiction.” The prose is powerfully evocative, ably capturing the bewildered isolation Jim experiences in his own home: “At nine years old, I could feel that barrenness, the draining effect of mechanical living; feel but not make sense of; feel in my body like a worm screwing itself into my every day.”
A poignant and poetic depiction of a tumultuous childhood.