Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
Mark Beaver’s Suburban Gospel is one more memoir of an adolescent wandering toward adulthood, a Bible Belt Baptist southern version of Roth’s Portnoy but without the gnawing sense of psychological guilt expiated on the analyst’s couch. It is, on the other hand, exuberantly “guilt-edged,” the saga of a young man growing up in and around 1980s Atlanta.
It’s from the French, mémoire, and means reminiscence about memories which are usually touchstone events or turning points in the memoirist’s life. Since the writing concerns turning points, the focus is usually narrower than, say, biography or even autobiography. The assertions, on the other hand, are understood to be factual even if creatively enlarged upon; memory is, after all, faulty: thus some leeway should be granted.
The author/personae opens the memoir in 1975 in a chapter titled “Invocation.” He, Mark Beaver, is seven. He recalls vividly a scene from a film shown by the deacons at his Bible Belt Baptist church, a dramatization of Hell based upon the Book of Revelations. It’s a forlorn destination and this young lad intends to act the part of a good Baptist boy to avoid damnation.
He memorizes all the books of the Bible in order, attends Vacation Bible School, completes arts and crafts projects in musty Sunday school classrooms, and lives the next few years in a small world saturated with Christianity as his age creeps into double digits. His sins are modest in scale: theft of a GI Joe doll, corn silk cigarettes, some rough talk on par with other neighborhood boys.
At age 13, however, the direction and speed of his adolescent life escalates; it’s that period in which both physical and mental milestones occur even if those milestones of young adolescent males lag behind those of young adolescent females. If, on the other hand, our author/personae is developing spiritually from that age of seven forward, from age 13 forward he’s developing sexually into licentious promiscuity.
Combine those “teen” years with the cultural attributes of the 1980s—soft pornography, amoral “sex” education—and the consequence is an attempt by our memoirist to detail his attempts at sexual gallivanting. If his “soul” was on a steady path toward salvation up to age 13, from that age his “soul” becomes unsteady if not insatiable to experience blots and blemishes.
I’m suggesting a problematic issue here.
There’s a political and social conservatism inherent to southern Bible Belt Baptists, much of which was energetically channeled into the 1980s conservative culture wars. It’s backdrop to Mr. Beaver’s memoir more so when he invites his reader to share his Daisy Duke fantasies. Surely the memoir is an age-old tale of the morality-play-conflict between faith and flesh, but one wonders whether the memoirist’s invitation to his readers to share his “carnal” interests verges into voyeurism.
Consider Angie Jacobs, who is preparing for her full immersion baptism as is our memoirist, a touchstone moment. They wear paper-thin white robes “similar to hospital smocks.” To cut the tension, he makes lame jokes.
“Soon it was her turn,” and she descends the steps into the water. Pastor Davis intones and Angie slips beneath the water, her “sheer paper robe [billowing] under the surface.” Two short sentences follow:
A moment later she was raised a new girl. And a child of God.
I witnessed something that would not only distract me from the sacred task at hand, but seal itself inside the deepest recesses of my memory for the rest of my life: Angie’s wet baptismal robe was clinging to her body like a second skin. The water cleaved to her hips in such a way that I could detect the perfect contoured outline of her panties. They were white, with tiny red hearts.
One can argue, of course, that the Southern Bible Belt Baptists are repressive and such repression is a cause leading to an opposite effect. Such a closed society is a narrow squeeze such that what is bound in the heart is less good old fastness and more an invitation to sensuality, or, to use another phrase, adolescent horniness.
That sensuality becomes, then, the dominant theme in Mr. Beaver’s memoir. One wonders what thoughts he might spawn with the quivering slice of jello in the school lunch room. One wonders, too, what Angie Jacobs, or another girl by the same name, might think when reading this memoir, albeit our memoirist confessed that he “was confused about a lot of things.”
In June 1981, the Atlanta police apprehended Wayne Williams; our memoirist was still 13, “a white kid, in a lily white suburban neighborhood of brick ranches with flower beds in the yards and bluebirds on the telephone lines.”
In a chapter titled “Addressee Unknown,” there are some touchstone details in the first two pages about the victims, children, murdered by a serial killer, perhaps as many as 22 dead children.
About which our memoirist writes, “Even in the dim wattage of my eighth-grade brain, I found it strange that a music promoter who lived with his parents in Dixie Hills . . . somehow could manage to gain more fame and notoriety than anyone I personally knew.”
One might argue that over those 1981 months in Atlanta a morbid illness settled in during the time in which the Atlanta Child Murders dominated. The “effect” on one’s consciousness or conscience could be measured as one measures an illness. It’s easily imagined that such a touchstone is traumatic, psychologically and spiritually distressing.
I’ve used the term “touchstone” to suggest a comparison not only for psychological thought but for spiritual thought.
Thus “touchstone” can be understood as an experience used to make judgments about the quality of things, especially one’s life. One does not have to become too “behavioral” to imagine the substantive changes in the lives of young people after the carnage at Columbine High School.
The memoirist’s persona in Suburban Gospel dismisses a response as “dim wattage.” Close contact with something so monstrous does not register as a seismic shift of any importance in either his psychological or spiritual being or becoming.
Memoir is again a record of events by a person with intimate knowledge of those events. The memoirist is thus the main character, a “someone” for readers to be with in the story as the writer’s thoughts and feelings, reactions and reflections—especially reflections—are revealed. Great memoirs are also “great” searches for meaning when the reader learns something about life by reading about a life.
What one learns about the memoirist’s 1986 prom night or his extremes of desire with Yvette seems more an immersion into the waters of voyeurism, however, than a search for meaning. Other readers are entitled to think differently.
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