TWELVE YEARS: An American Boyhood in East Germany by Joel Agee

TWELVE YEARS: An American Boyhood in East Germany

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At the end of World War II, eight-year-old Joel Agee (son of writer James by an early marriage) went from Mexico--with his mother Alma; his stepfather Bodo Uhse, a German Communist novelist; and his brother Stefan--to live in the new East Germany. In this lucid but curiously listless memoir, he recounts what it was like--and what it was like, basically, was boring. Adolescence seems to have come to Joel with a nasty prematurity. Reading Bodo's high-shelf erotica, experiencing the iron chastity of East European nude beaches, writing bad poetry, feeling inept with his classmates, Joel quickly found himself on Alienation Island. In no time, school turned into a problem, an arena of stunning under-achievement; hooky-playing and hood-y friends led to disciplining--almost to expulsion from the Free German Youth, as dire an excommunication as existed. Around him at home he had no particular security either. Bodo seemed emasculated by the new order, and turned from an artist into a dull cultural functionary, nervously eyeing the proper line to toe; Alma was unhappy (Bodo philandered); Stefan had developed asthma. The humorlessness of East German life is what comes across most strongly; or, enervatingly. Nor does it help the book's pace that Joel's reaction was a different kind of humorlessness--a malcontented (and, very pertinently, virginal) ""man-without-qualities"" stance. The adult Agee--though acute on the nubby feel of actual memories (and the look of postures, as importantly real to a youngster as any actual happening)--just sort of moseys the reader along, keeping intensity at bay so long that it slides and fades into the background altogether. You keep waiting for this particularized bit of autobiography to soar--and it never does.

Pub Date: April 20th, 1981
ISBN: 0226010503
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux