A Great Memoir, August 1, 2002
By Paula Sharp, author (New York) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Pagan Time: An American Childhood (Hardcover)
Whenever I crack open a memoir, I'm worried that it's going to be one of those naval-gazing autobiographies that will serve to distinguish our generation of American writers by our wholehearted lack of self-consciousness about how insignificant we really are. I have this vision of memoir (with its better potential for prurient scandal and book sales) sucking away the creative lives of writers, luring them from the greater art of writing that more tenuous form of autobiography known as fiction. Occasionally, I am forced to abandon this prejudice, when I stumble on a memoir like Natalie Kusz's ROAD SONG, or Paul Auster's INVENTION OF SOLITUDE: I'll see a portrait of character so carefully drafted, so astute, so detailed, so true, that it astonishes me. I feel the memoir's characters standing behind me, breathing over my shoulder as I read, more real than life, bigger even than their own lives.
PAGAN TIME is such a memoir. The character at the heart of this book is the narrator's father, co-founder of a `60's Utopian collective and a school for schizophrenic and delinquent teenagers. This is a man who moves his family to an isolated spot in the Adirondacks, imports a handful of disturbed and dangerous adolescents into their midst, and proceeds to live in a world governed by alliance with or against his boisterous, lawless character. His force of personality allows him to persuade whole groups of teenage delinquents, grown men and his own children to dress up as Romans and Celts fighting battles in the woods; to chant and sing at overnight pig roasts; to orchestrate a flower-child wedding with himself and nine boys decked in eighteenth-century Royal Navy uniforms offering a ten-gun salutes with muskets.
Perks's father's spontaneity, energy and ingenuity allow him to recreate life as he goes along - to build a world not just big enough for himself but also for those around him - and one which, ultimately, provides perfect camouflage for a person who may be no more than an ephemeral and shadowy personality, a trick of mirrors, a man with a slim conscience and the most fragile ability to form lasting connections with any other person, including his wives, lovers and children. Perks's memoir unravels with a Great Gatsby-like elegance, an agile sleight of hand - its conclusion reminds me more than anything of Henry Gatz's arrival at his son's wake, to tell us all about the other Gatsby. PAGAN TIME Time leaves you just as unsure about who its central character might really be - when, for example, he faces the reader and narrator recreated as a butler who lives as a parody and embodiment of all the rules of civilization , a butler who, with a wonderful twistiness, pronounces himself a Buddhist who "does not cling." It is in the final few encounters with him and with his family and their spare words about him, that he emerges as whole and wholly believable.
Perks writes with such a clear eye - without self-pity or self-importance, without moralizing conclusions, with a lively sense of curiosity about life and people. This is a smart, novel portrayal of fatherhood and father-daughter relations, and an exuberant portrait of the world of the sixties as well. The memoir's energetic writing sustains the reader right to the end, and every passage is deft - at times exhilaratingly dramatic, at times breathtakingly spare.