‘Nobody’s Son’: Brewster, N.Y., author confronts his painful past in memoir
Published 12:00 am, Sunday, January 8, 2017
Mark Slouka has used elements of his own family history in novels such as “Brewster” and “God’s Fool,” but a few years ago he realized the time had come to write a memoir.
“Every book comes out of some necessary place,” the Brewster, N.Y., author says. “I had a backlog of things that had to be dealt with ... things I hadn’t really processed.”
“Nobody’s Son” (W.W. Norton) is the result of that internal exploration and reviews have been very strong. The book has also received admiring comments from other acclaimed memoirists.
“I have never before read anything except Nabokov’s ‘Speak, Memory’ that so relentlessly and shrewdly exhausted the kindness and cruelty of recollection’s shaping devices,” Geoffrey Wolff, author of the classic “The Duke of Deception,” wrote of Slouka’s look back at the lives of his Czechoslovakian immigrant parents and the social and emotional difficulties they found in their new homeland.
“We don’t always remember what we deserve to or want to. We remember what we have to, which isn’t quite the same thing. We remember because one memory has elbowed aside the others,” Slouka writes near the beginning of the book.
The memoir delves deeply into the lives of Slouka’s parents, who were oppressed by both the Nazis and the Soviet communists in their native land. Escape to America brought many positive elements into their lives, but the writer’s mother spent much of her life coping with depression, prescription drug addiction and other emotional torments that would end the marriage and alienate the mother from her only son.
“Nobody’s Son” is often very painful, but Slouka also writes about the happiness his mother found, for several years, when she would return to Czechoslovakia to spend summers with a boyfriend she had before she was married.
The memoirist never pretends to give us the “whole truth,” but just his own perception of his parents’ relationship and the unhappiness they found, along with freedom, when they came to America.
“The better the book, the less it tidies things up,” Slouka believes. “Life is about multiple choices, and it doesn’t give us any easy answers.”
The author is completely honest with the reader, admitting he is delving into the past from his own perspective many years after the events in his book. Slouka shows us how he used some of the material in his fiction earlier in his life and that the line between fact and fiction can become cloudy.
“It’s not fear I have to resist at this moment, but an almost unbearable sense of disloyalty. Even cruelty,” Slouka writes of the process of dealing with the secret life of a family. “I’m betraying her, us, the past. Just leave us alone, she’s saying, pleading: leave at least those few memories intact, that handful of golden days when you were still small and the world was still magic and I was everything to you.”
Slouka started the book while his mother was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease back home in her native land, and she died as he was finishing it.
The writer will never know what she might have thought, but says, “Even in her worst moments, she had some baseline respect for me as a writer. ... She had very high, European snobbish notions of literature, so for me to have flinched would have been a betrayal of her.”
In addition to his own story, the author writes about the way we all deal with the passage of time, and the power of nostalgia. Whether or not we want to think about what was going on years or decades ago, there are external triggers, such as old pop songs, that will take us right back.
“Music is one of the most extraordinary time machines,” Slouka says of what can happen when we hear a long-forgotten tune. In the book, Bread’s “I Want to Make it With You” and Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” send him right back to a lake-side vacation in Connecticut in 1970, when he was 12.
“It doesn’t have to be a good song to take you back to your childhood,” he says. “Scent can be another time machine. There are moments when you can’t place a smell, but it brings back the past.”
Slouka worries that we might lose a sense of the past in this new age of isolating ourselves with devices that shut out the real world. Earlier generations of kids heard family stories on vacation car trips and around the table at shared meals. Now, they probably have on headphones that block out what their parents might be saying.
“It’s an addiction,” the author says of our reliance on the new technological alternate realities. “And no one seems to be exempt from that idea of not being able to go more than 30 seconds without grabbing a phone. (These devices) are colonizing our inner lives.”
The writer laughs as he recalls a recent visit to a gas station where every pump had a TV on top of it.
“As I was putting gas in the car, a scent came across that reminded me of a dream. But then I noticed the TV and the moment was gone. Multiply my experience times many millions across America ... and there is less time for any of us to think our own thoughts.”
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