A collection of darkly comic thumbnail sketches that portray an abusive household from the perspective of a child whose intelligence (and maturity) surpass those of her parents.
It’s hard to believe that St. John is now a New York City art-gallery owner, in light of her impoverished (in every sense) childhood in southern Illinois. She and her three siblings “were white trash hicks with a real weird accent.” They were browbeaten and battered by their father, a hotheaded alcoholic of Irish and Native American descent who squandered his wages at the Rat Hole bar while his starving children dreamt of owning shoes. Her housebound mother, a “half wit” Hungarian war bride, was just as bad, hoarding doughnuts at P.T.A meetings and smacking her children (who she nicknamed “mud ball,” “hog,” and “Blumpsen, which means fat sausage in German”). St. John narrates her early life in an unrefined native dialect, describing outhouse adventures with an irate rooster, her hillbilly grandmother’s first visit to a grocery store, and the “boots” they made of plastic bags for her younger sibling. There are hilarious episodes illustrating her mother’s inability to assimilate into American culture and her father’s backwoods ways, but sometimes the black humor is outweighed by horror—especially when she describes the injuries her female relatives received at the hands of violent or drunken husbands. Throughout her chaotic narration, the tragedy of four pathetic children futilely waiting to receive their parents’ affections emerges. St. John blatantly acknowledges her yearning for her father’s recognition, but her feelings for her mother remain ambiguous. And it is uncertain, in the end, whether she really transcended her rustic origins at all: despite a college education and her later highbrow career, the author’s description of her own drinking habits, unplanned pregnancy, and abusive lover suggest that, in some regards, she followed in her parents’ footsteps.
At once poetic and crude, this is a raw story that provides horror and laughter in equal measure.