Reviewed by Frederick Parker
The way I see it, memoir should do more than tell a story. It should chomp at the bit to reveal something, maybe truths about who authors really are when nobody is looking, or encoded realities waiting for just the right moment to show themselves. I want memoirs that leave me feeling connected to authors, almost as if I’ve known them all my life. Not every memoirist has the skill to do this, but Joseph Bathanti does.
His recent memoir, Half of What I Say Is Meaningless, connects in just 172 pages. The transplanted southerner, poet, and North Carolina professor of creative writing paints a vivid picture from vignettes extracted from everyday life. He leaves readers with a stout take on just who he is, offering insights into what’s important to him. The book is bigger than its fourteen mostly short (10-20 page and one 30-page) essays. Anyone with a fascination for the who behind the name on the title page, and an interest in how small events make big differences and shape lives, will surely enjoy reading this book.
Bathanti grew up in one of Pittsburgh’s ethnic blue-collar neighborhoods, coming of age in the 1970s as America throbbed with cultural revolution while fighting the unpopular war in Vietnam. As a young man shaped by his Italian-Catholic upbringing, Bathanti felt powerful attachments to hearth and family but rejected the predictable future they offered if he remained at home. Wanting no part of the drudgery endured by his steelworker father and seamstress mother, he renounced the clock-punching blue-collar life for a different future. As a young man he knew well what he didn’t want. His problem was, he didn’t know what he did want. This book is at least partly catalyzed by the search for an answer, a quest in which Bathanti discovers or rediscovers himself and explores the notion of place and how it matters, both as points on a map and as status in a pecking order. He becomes a VISTA volunteer assigned to a North Carolina prison. This excises him from his Pittsburgh neighborhood and sets into motion the unexpected, life-changing events that shape his future.
The book defies expectation. Given the turmoil of the seventies, I was braced for an account of those turbulent days, but there is surprisingly little to say about such turmoil. The final (and title) essay is a powerful comment on the hard decisions many young men of the era faced when confronted by wartime military conscription. Other essays offer glimpses into life impoverished by volunteer service, but most of the decade-of-the-seventies material is held back, perhaps for another day. At first the omission seemed to me like a missed opportunity, but in fact the book is not diminished by it.
Half of What I Say Is Meaningless opens with its longest essay, “The Turf of Hankering.” Here, Bathanti grounds the reader in time and place, summarizing his history and departure from Pittsburgh to head South for VISTA duty. In a kind of literary slow motion he describes the journey away from the familiar and into the alien landscape of the Deep South and its people. To his credit, he does not dwell too long on the usual fascinations of first-time visitors to the South—grits, religion, and the like—but he does go there, and native southerners will notice.
Bathanti’s is a powerful storytelling style that endears and captivates, disarming skeptics and moving them squarely into his camp. He gives readers good reasons to connect, perhaps through implied common experience. Consider an episode from “Busboy,” a short piece about a despised summer job he held in an upscale Pittsburgh Italian restaurant. He unabashedly shares with the reader his humiliation and disappointment with himself, something almost everyone has experienced but rarely discusses. The young busboy Bathanti, overly conscious of his background and low station, spots a diner he knows—a well-to-do young man his age—in the restaurant with a group of friends. Hypersensitive about his busboy’s jacket and the rag he wields, he hopes they won’t recognize him, but the young man does. He waves to Bathanti, who, utterly humiliated, can only watch his peers “feasting on the very food, only a few days before, I had known neither existed nor could have pronounced.” Overwhelmed and defeated, he confesses that he felt “like an organ grinder’s monkey, I wanted to storm his table and smash everything, but all I could do was wave back.”
In another example of what might be described as intimacy in telling he remembers a high-profile local literary reading for which he confesses he was completely unprepared. In “A Christmas Story,” Bathanti, by now a young and overconfident college professor of creative writing, accepts an invitation to read an annual Christmas story of his choosing to children and parents at his town’s library. Overly sure of himself he fails to prepare and the result is disaster. He describes the death-spiral as he reads his selection—a previously unread story he wrongly assumed was uplifting and cheerful:
I refused to lift my head from the text, but I heard whimpering as I read on. I felt especially like a palpable force threatening to blast me off my stool, my wife’s incredulity. She was hoping, I’m sure, that the child she carried would have none of my flair for judgment, if she was that charitable in her assessment of my idiocy.
As in “Busboy,” Bathanti entertains in the telling of “A Christmas Story,” and through humility offers readers good reasons to acknowledge his humanity. His methods leave no doubt that the author is, indeed, “one of us.”
Bathanti’s language is not without occasional complexity; however, it is also engaging, clear, and at times even poetic and melodious—a joy to read. His style is comfortable and intimate, never stilted or pedantic. There is considerably more to his book than simple storytelling. In some ways this might be everyone’s memoir, a work that speaks eloquently about vulnerabilities and small accidental events that change lives. This memoir offers readers more than they bargained for. It’s worth reading.
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