Keen, affecting, suspicious, evocative, subtly cool memoir of Birkerts’s first 30 years.
His complex narrative mimics the action of a mind, “juxtaposing past and present, suddenly extracting from beneath some ordinary moment a gleaming root of memory.” Critic and essayist Birkerts (The Gutenberg Elegies, 1994, etc.) paints the big picture through the slow accrual of vivid portraits and images anchoring all that is forgotten. Son of immigrants (Latvian was spoken at home), as a kid he was unsettled by the contemplation of their homeland’s legacy of concealment and myth, its otherness when held up against life in suburban Detroit. Birkerts goes bone-deep here—wincingly and embarrassingly at times, even when there are intimations of face-saving—to chart the rawness and immediacy of his childhood. Central to the picture is his father, an explosive taskmaster, although “the explosion is nothing compared to the ongoing expectation of the explosion.” Birkerts rebels, in part because everyone else his age is: “We had all, it seemed, tuned in to FM radio at the same time, gotten fired up by the same bands, read the same few books—On the Road, Howl, Naked Lunch, Been Down So Long It Seems Like Up—and now we were linked in broad solidarity against the corrupt and avaricious system of the elders.” He’s not just running with his tribe, though; young Sven is a sharp kid, expectant and self-submerged. He has passion, so when his handful of relationships founder, the knife twists. Thankfully, even at rock bottom, there is reading, which sustained and fortified him, and Joseph Brodsky, a goad more than a mentor to Birkerts’s writing, which through fits and starts finally finds the essay form. His act of excavation here uncovers a man of analytic intelligence who also listens to the logic of his heart.
A piece of hard work, dredged and sifted often to the dregs of misery—but it registers and holds.