In the song, "The Road to Bayamon," about a traveling carnival in Puerto Rico, Tom Russell introduces us to Gypsy, who "used to run a little shot-and-a-beer joint/ now she's a jockey on the Astro Ride/ she took me for a whirl one night/. it messed me up inside." That's pretty much the way you'll feel once you've finished Sue William Silverman's disturbed and disturbing memoir. Her work is a manic Astro Ride through shape- and time-shifting voices, visions and competing versions of herself and her grasp of reality. At times a glimpse into the mind and heart of a schizophrenic, at others a searing depiction of a soul, not lost, but never actually found, one ill-served by her parents, who brought her into the world and, apparently, emotionally abandoned her.
Though the subtitle refers to her status as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, Silverman's story, and her crisis of identity is both broader and narrower than merely feeling different from those around her. Her parents gave her little sense of why she was different, and why that should be valued and embraced. Instead, they seemed content to ignore their faith and their ethnicity. Silverman seems to h ave had trouble doing the same, perhaps because she had no means of attachment to the life her parents led. This was no doubt due to her father's role as a sexual abuser, and her mother's, apparently, as an enabler. While it must be horrible to be sexually abused, it must be worse when your father manifests no outward signs of being a monster. How can you muster the courage to level a charge against him when it is unlikely anyone will believe it. Perhaps you, yourself, begin to question your own veracity. Perhaps it never happened. Perhaps your grasp of reality is just that frail?
That Silverman's grasp on reality was in fact that frail is evident by the maelstrom of voices, tenses and narrative personae she throws at the reader. From first person present to second person past, third person, then back to first, when she breaches the narrative wall to directly address the "Dear Gent[i]le Reader," Silverman invites the reader to strap in on her carnival ride of a memoir.
To be honest, her first person present tense was too painfully present. "It's the past," I wanted to shout at her. "leave it there." The present tense seemed awfully gimmicky, a little too, too, an awful lot of writer's workshop for my taste. But I persevered. I pushed past the gimmickry, I even survived "Prepositioning John Travolta," the chapter in which she illustrated her prepositional confusion. Frankly, that was almost unreadable. But as with some much of the book, this seemingly stream-of-conscious exposition was committed with a purpose. We are given a glimpse inside the mind of someone who has no idea of what her identity is or means. It's a fascinating portrait, as well as being a snapshot of an era.
Her depiction of her long-distance love affair with Pat Boone, not as a predator, but as one who longs for his purity and decency, who envies his children their father, is surprisingly tender. She resists every temptation to mock this squeaky clean parody of the rock and roll legend. She humanizes his decency and avoids the mockery of the self-diagnosed sophisticate. When she meets the star backstage following a concert, Silverman gives us not just a portrait of the star, but for the first time, her own being begins to take shape. We learn there is in fact a there there, and we understand she is beginning to discover that for herself. She is real. She does have an identity.
The Pat Boone Fan Club is a difficult, at times painful, but ultimately reaffirming read. You might wonder why I only gave it four stars (it would have been 3 1/2 if that had been possible). The answer is that five is a rare bird indeed. It's kind of like the first time they gave a "Perfect 10!!!" in Women's Gymnastics. It cheapened it. Now, if a girl doesn't get a 10, she has failed. I wouldn't want to see that happen with my judgment. The only books I would consider awarding five stars are "Growth of the Soil," by Knut Hamsun, and "Birds Without Wings," by Louis de Bernieres, and possibly "A Moveable Feast," by Ernest Hemingway, though only as a work of fiction.