Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Two Coming of Age Tales

Coming of age.

The best
and worst of times, though only in hindsight. Pure Id: everything is the happiest or saddest or most fun or most boring thing ever. Carbonated glands and nowhere to go with them, in my case, at least.

Though some might question my level of maturity--puckishness, my dears, and an irrepressible boyish charm!--I’m fairly certain I came of age years ago. Years and years ago. So why am I still reading about it? Is there a point when I’ll be too old to read and relate to coming of age novels? Is it a timeless genre or is it telling the same story over and over AND OVER again, in different hands with a slightly different perspective? Holden and Huck, Scout and Siddartha. The eventual outcome--isn’t it the same? Losing the child for the adult. The lifelong look back. Loneliness, lewdness (if you’re lucky), liberty.

To wit, two books--one fiction, one non-- that have me thinking about all this. Neither is great, but both are pretty good.

First, Cardboard G-ds: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards by Josh Wilker. Snapshot: small urban 70's family, artsy Mom, ineffectual Dad, beloved older brother. Mom takes on a boyfriend who moves in with the family. Family moves to Vermont to get 'back to the land' and then finds it neither easy nor very rewarding. Big brother tries to grow up, parents and boyfriend fall apart, kid clings to his baseball cards as the only constant in his life.

This is a very sentimental memoir and had I not grown up at the same time collecting the very same cards, I would never have gotten through the book but there was something I could appreciate despite the fact that my own circumstances were nothing like his. My family never divorced, my mother never took on a boyfriend, etc. At the time, I did find a certain sanctity in baseball cards. I traded and flipped with friends. We lusted after cards we needed to complete our teams and speculated how our teams would do and we memorized stats and recited them as we shagged fly balls and played catch for hours in the side yard.

Then something happened. Cards were less important and were replaced by music. Baseball, which had been our social currency, took a backseat to rock, especially punk rock. The Grand Old Game versus Young, Loud and Snotty.

Which brings us to Joe Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned. I was just crazy about Meno’s novel, The Boy Detective Fails about which I gushed in a horrible run-on sentence of a post (http://reednext.blogspot.com/2007/01/boy-detective-fails-by-joe-meno.html). Hairstyles is actually the book before Boy Detective. Truth is, it's a pretty stock coming-of-age tale: Brian, an unremarkable adolescent boy, 'in love' with his best friend, a punk chick who fistfights other girls and parents whose marriage is falling apart around him. Punk rock becomes his life preserver.

However, it succeeds because Meno has a tremendous sense of what, in Yiddish, is called rachmones. (It’s pronounced rachMOness. It doesn’t rhyme with Ramones.) While it defies a literal definition, I’ve always thought of it as where empathy and sympathy meet. Meno gets the sadness inside his characters, the scars they have and their inability to verbalize them despite wanting to scream, “help me! I hurt!” For that alone, I love his work.

I graduated from baseball cards to punk rock, too, so these works struck me between the ears.