In this well-crafted debut memoir, Davis recounts his early life with an angry, drug-dealing father and comes to terms with the fact of his adoption.
“My earliest memory is of a gun,” the author writes. He was 5 years old in 1970s Brooklyn, and his parents’ regular fighting, he says, had escalated to the point that his father had put a gun to his mother’s head. This serves as a shocking, visceral opening to a tightly constructed memoir in which Davis contrasts his two father figures. He devotes Part I to the man that he grew up thinking was his father, a hot-tempered illegal immigrant from Argentina who worked as a butcher, cutting corners and playing cruel jokes on customers and employees. The author writes of times when he says his father locked him in a meat freezer or shut his fingers in a car window. Davis has a knack for re-created dialogue—especially his parents’ shouts, all in capital letters—and for alternately blunt and jarring chapter-opening lines. Aptly imitating a childhood perspective, Davis at one point remembers imagining “small devil horns” near his father’s hairline. Yet after his father served 11 years in Sing Sing for selling drugs, Davis—then an adult—wrote a letter pleading leniency to stop his deportation. Instead of depicting his parent as a total monster, the author acknowledges psychological nuances by pinpointing moments that show the man’s tender core, such as when he asked his sons repeatedly if they loved him or allowed John to teach him English pronunciation. In Part II, Davis tells how he learned, at age 34, that he was adopted. He then discovered that his biological father, a Milwaukee pizzeria owner and amateur musician who left when John was 18 months old, had recently died of cancer. If Davis’ adopted father is the book’s presiding demon, his biological one is the angel: he “has become a deity to me; an almost mythical figure,” Davis observes. By including only information about his fathers, the author keeps this memoir brief and focused. As a result, there’s remarkable thematic unity here rather than a misguided drive for comprehensiveness that one often finds in memoirs.
A snappy, sensitive autobiography.