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SUGARHOUSE by Matthew Batt

SUGARHOUSE

Turning the Neighborhood Crack House into Our Home Sweet Home

By Matthew Batt

Pub Date: June 19th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-547-63453-1
Publisher: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

A doctoral candidate takes on a massive project of home renovation.

In explaining how he and his wife became determined to purchase a house while he was studying for his degree in writing at the University of Utah, rather than renting like most graduate students, Batt writes, “To buy a house—or at least to look in earnest for one—is to admit to yourself that you think you’re ready…It was time to grow up and settle down.” The author was propelled by a sense that adulthood had “coldcocked” them: “everyone but us was dying, getting divorced, or having a kid.” This in turn compelled Batt to recklessly purchase a Fisbo, a “for sale by owner” house with serious long-term maintenance issues—and a largely unexplored reputation as a one-time “crack house.” The author deferred to the earnest eccentricity of the owner (Batt’s character sketches are deft but briefly drawn), who assured him that the house was an undervalued bargain but left Batt the legacy of years of jury-rigged repairs. Much of the book follows Batt as he attempts to renovate the house on a low budget, haplessly doing much of the work himself, and also turning to bemused salt-of-the-earth Utah men for assistance in such tasks as building a cement kitchen counter. A major theme, unsurprisingly, is that of masculinity: Batt’s home-improvement misadventures allow consideration of how hard it is for young men today (particularly intellectual types) to measure up to absent fathers. The embodiment of this idea is Batt’s grandfather, a doctor turned cantankerous, lovelorn old man, whose deterioration provides the main element of the back story of the author’s complicated family life. In the conclusion, Batt discusses his selling of the house and moving on to an academic posting. The relatable author writes clearly, but the twin story engines of personal angst and home-repair strife don’t really mesh, resulting in a memoir that feels inessential and highly specific rather than potentially universal.

This Old House for the NPR set.