The Shame of What We Are/Sam Gridley: Reflections

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Art Dennison (denizen:  an inhabitant, a resident) sets out one day on a tricycle and discovers "an open space where a house ought to be, a swatch of dirt and weeds and strange other stuff" where "clumps of grass grew to his chest, dangling brown fluff at the ends."  It's Camden, NJ, 1951, and Art is about to turn five; nonetheless, he may just have happened upon the wilds—an African tundra minus the menace of hyenas and sharp-toothed lions.  He's hoping so, anyway, and though the missing-row home adventure ultimately leaves him dirty and scarred, Art, the unconventional hero of Sam Gridley's superbly well-crafted novel, The Shame of What We Are, will spend the rest of his life (or what we readers learn of it, anyway) yearning for things that don't quite exist, or hoping that what does exist might morph into something far better.

He's got every right to yearn, to hope.  His dad is an angry wind-up of a man; his mother is psychologically damaged and fading.  And every time Art starts settling in, an actual denizen, he's picked up and moved again, from one end of the country to another, making it just so slightly frustrating and difficult for this nerdy kid to forge bridges beyond his own fracturing family.  In chapters with titles like "Ranger Ringo," "Carloochieland," and "The Smell of Rain," Gridley provides nuanced details of a life that leaves his protagonist with few options but to "thrash ahead."

One of the great pleasures of Shame is the perfectly calibrated nature of its sentences; there's not a single false metaphor, poorly adjacent-ized adjective, or bit of excess in these pages (there aren't even made-up words; I only do that because this is a blog).  Here, for example, is how "Ranger Ringo" begins:

It was after the baby didn't come that Art got his cowboy suit.  The tan shirt had pockets tilted like smiling lips, outlined with a dark red cord that his mother called "piping" though it didn't look at all like his father's pipe.  Similar stuff ran around the collar and down beside the snaps, which were perfectly milky white circles rimmed with silver.  Bright flowers sewn on the front, along with lots of squiggles and loops, made the shirt stiff and heavy.

Shame, which is beautifully illustrated by Tom Jackson and will be released in September, is a production of New Door Books, a new Philadelphia-based publishing house that released its first acclaimed title, Ligia Rave's Hannah's Paradise, earlier this year.


Lilian Nattel said...

What a lovely review, Beth. I really like the excerpt.

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