A hard-bitten, working-class childhood on the fringes of decaying Buffalo, New York, goes a long way toward rendering freelancer Phillips’s memoir into a plaint, an extended ache that finds its way right into the reader’s heart.
Like a good train wreck, this family history has a way of holding your attention despite the pain and sorrow. Buffalo had aged badly by the time Phillips was born into the shadow of the cruddy industrial city in the 1950s. His father was an enormous presence, albeit a mostly absent one as he poured on the overtime at the power plant, breathing in the coal dust as he spot-welded the rickety equipment, pushing to make every possible dollar, then to return home to collapse before the television, with a beer and a butt. He was exhausted and tetchy, a combination monster and guardian angel, who endured “boring dangerous filthy sweaty deafening work” in hopes of saving enough money to buy a piece of land in the Alleghenies: to hunt and fish, to commune with his son. The father’s dream isn’t shared by the family, and it is not a happy life, though not a grossly un<\I>happy one. But it gets no better for the young Phillips when he develops Tourette’s syndrome. Teased at home and at school for his garden of tics and weird talk, he becomes withdrawn and violent, anonymously disruptive at school, all the while fiercely trying to control his behavior. His writing echoes that emotional stifling: blanched and hollow-eyed, eerie and foreboding and breathtaking, it’s close to a heart monitor’s flat line. Then, in a terrible saving grace, as his father dies a long death to cancer, the cabin is built, father and son tangle their heartstrings, the “coal-black and electric-bright American dream” becomes fate and fatality, and Phillips goes on to a better life by far, a life in that very same cabin.
Phillips’s rebirth is a beautiful thing to behold, fresh air rushing through a scarred system.