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A Childhood – And yet again Andy heads South, this time with Harry

July 8, 2013

The first line of Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table:

“From the first place of liquid darkness, within the second place of air and light, I set down the following record with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths and its direction always toward the Third Place, where the starting point is myth.”

The first line of Harry Crews’ A Childhood:

“My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew.”

I’ve never been a fan of the idea that first lines are utterly vital, although I admit I try, when writing fiction, to make sure that the first line of anything I might write is at the very least not too boring. But I don’t think anyone could disagree that these are pretty amazing ways to open anything – story, novel, memoir, whatever. And as different as they are they share a little in common – Frame’s “memories of truths” have something in common with Crews’ memory of his daddy, built as it is not on his own memories but on stories he’s been told. And Frame’s Third Place – death – bears comparison to Crews’ knowledge of his father, based on stories that might be described as mythic. Catching the clap off a Native American chick and losing a ball as a result while building a highway through the mangroves swamps of Florida? OK look, maybe we have different ideas about “mythic”.

crewsA Childhood is a very different book to Frame’s autobiography. For a start, it’s not an autobiography – it’s essentially a memoir of Crews from just before he turns five through to six, maybe a little older. It’s subtitled The biography of a place, but even this seems a stretch, although the landscape of Bacon County, Georgia, features prominently.

This is not to take anything away from Crews’ memoir. He and Frame leave me slightly bewildered by the detail of their memories of their childhoods (I lived in Northern Ireland from ages 3 to 7, during the absolute worst of the Troubles, and while I have many, many vivid recollections of that time I doubt there’s enough to fill a book). But there is certainly plenty of detail, by turns bewitching (almost literally, in one or two cases), repugnant, enchanting, often amusing – and always enthralling.

Crews is incredibly generous. His father died when he was a baby and his mother quickly remarried, to his father’s brother – his uncle, who had to divorce his wife to do so. Crews did not realise the man he called “daddy” was not his daddy until he was almost six, under pretty appalling circumstances. There was alcoholism, there was violence – most of it booze-fuelled, though not all – there was painfully grinding poverty. But there was also joy, sometimes in the strangest of places – the slaughtering and butchering of a pig, for example, is one of the most weirdly entrancing things I’ve read in a while. (Netty had a problem with this bit. No doubt she’ll tell you about it.) He has two bouts of serious illness as a young child; in the latter case in particular the ignorance of those around him makes a bad situation much worse, and in both cases his parents are tolerant of rather too much faith-based nonsense. But you never get the sense that Crews blames them. Overwhelmingly you get the sense that he felt loved, and decades later, as he wrote this memoir, he still valued that.

Violence inhabits a bizarre place in Crews’ memoir, and theremight be something here that at least partly explains the culture of violence in the States today that leaves most of the world shaking its head. There is little violence in Frame’s autobiography and most of it is institutionalised. But here’s Crews, talking about Bacon County: “Men killed other men oftentimes not because there had been some offense that merited death, but simply because there had been an offense, any offense.” Dogs and fences, Crews says, were as much a reason to kill as anything else. Obviously the NRA has plenty to answer for, but I wonder how much this cavalier, almost dismissive attitude towards killing another human being explains some of what we see far too often in the US today.

Sex also inhabits a pretty surreal niche here. I’ve read about sex games in prepubescent kids, of course, although I have little recollection of taking part in anything like that myself. (Although there was this one time in my first year in primary school in Northern Ireland when I ran around the playground trying to tear the knickers off all the little girls. I guess the shame of it maybe turned me gay. Or not. Whatever.) But what’s depicted here – little boys lining up their sisters, or the sisters of other little boys, so that yet other little boys can git theirselves some – wow. Around the age of six or seven I remember coming to a vague understanding of what then I probably would’ve described as naughtiness, or dirtiness. But rutting away at the crotch of a little girl? Um, maybe not.

A Childhood was not the Crews book Netty and I were supposed to read this year – A Feast of Snakes was abandoned because Netty doesn’t like snakes. We then settled on buying the Crews Reader and reading The Gypsy’s Curse – which ironically is the only piece of this volume Netty hasn’t read. I am glad we accidentally ended up choosing A Childhood for the blog though, because, apart from the fact that it dovetails nicely with Frame, it really is a wonderful read.

And I’ve got the rest of the Reader to go.

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