A retired humanities professor looks back on his upbringing in working-class Buffalo, New York, during the 1950s.
Shurgot (North American Players of Shakespeare, 2007, etc.) writes that he has “sketched here the childhood that for many years I chose not so much to forget as to ignore.” The city he describes feels at once completely familiar and utterly foreign. His Buffalo is one of coal men and rag men, of steel-toe Red Wing boots, of winter ice chopped from Lake Erie to cool the city’s iceboxes, and neighbors in summertime sitting on their porches listening to the broadcast of a baseball game. He is the oldest son of an energetic Irish mother, drawn with verve and affection, and a taciturn Ukrainian father who threatened to inscribe his wife’s tombstone with the words, “She detested peace and quiet.” There’s not much conflict in these chapters, which discretely detail stories involving things from Catholicism to water skiing; nevertheless, Shurgot gamely explores the misdemeanors that exist in any family. They mostly stem from a somewhat withholding father who brushes off his children’s bids for attention, hurting them more than he probably realizes. Thinking back to the way his father often classed each home repair project as “a one-man job,” Shurgot “vowed that I would never utter that phrase to my children.” His two sisters received even less attention, and Shurgot draws a line from that mild neglect to one’s teenage pregnancy. He’s conscious in retrospect not only of that subtly different treatment, but also of Buffalo’s broader racial segregation, which meant he saw no black people except at minor league Buffalo Bisons games. But this retrospection also constitutes the book’s most frustrating flaw: Many of the stories are told from a distance of years, uncolored by the immediacy of sensory detail as he narrates the experiences rather than re-creates them. Still, the nostalgic detail and Shurgot’s own honesty hit home. When, decades later at a Seattle party, the author mentions he’s from Buffalo, a well-heeled wag responds, “I’m so sorry.” “I’m not,” he huffs; readers won’t be, either.
An enjoyable memoir of life upstate.