Friday, August 14, 2009

Nicholas Dawidoff: The Crowd Sounds Happy

As a memoir, Nicholas Dawidoff's "The Crowd Sounds Happy" didn't work for me. Memoirs, I realized, are almost fiction. They work (or don't work) because the author strings his life together along as one long story. He tells the story as if he were a character in a book- as if his memory really works that way, as if there weren't giant gaps, as if he doesn't just remember snapshots in time, connected by a few hints as-told-by relatives and friends who were also there. Other memoirs work because they don't claim to tell whole long chunks of life- they're just vignettes from life: "When I was 14, a momentous occasion occurred" (in more poetic language) and then some segue happens and some other poetic event happens. Or the mini-moments are organized by theme, or something, so it just flows without having to feel like fiction. Dawidoff attempts to do both- he tells his life story in mini vignettes. Only, he doesn't remember it very clearly, and he forgot to add segues. So it jumps around from vague memory to vague memory in sequential order, but leaving the reader with only a vague picture of a boy with an interesting life in terms of subject matter, but not a particularly interesting read.

On the other hand, Dawidoff is very interesting on some subjects that are near and dear to my heart, and he's an eloquent storyteller about how these things affected his young life. Young Nicky found solace in baseball, and not just in baseball, but in a frustrating Red Sox team. A pre-end-to-the-curse-of-the-Bambino team. Poor Nicky sits by the radio, in fact, choses radio over TV broadcasts of baseball for many of the same reasons I do, and goes through all sorts of superstitious rituals during games. He dreams about the Red Sox, tells himself stories about the players, and picks favorites that aren't necessarily the stars. (Joe Blanton, anyone?) As a child, he reads every old book on baseball he can- he's a reader, too- and as I read along, I tried to remember all the baseball books that I read that were dusty and crusty and not particularly good, but filled my imagination. Most of them were ghostwritten memoirs by baseball stars- another form of memoir, I guess.

Dawidoff lives in New Haven, a city I spent lots of time in during college, and he discusses class issues that the city as a whole faces and that he and his family face. His single mother is a teacher, and Nicky doesn't realize till later, when he is Nicholas, just how much his desires to be more like his upperclass peers are, to have more stuff, etc, sting his mother who works her ass off to provide for her 2 kids. He feels something is amiss, but doesn't have the skills to check it out. What kid does? He suffers all of the way he feels he doesn't fit in in silence, thinking he is the only one. There are lots of other ways this book hit home for me- the voracious reading, feeling like a giant dork, etc. I think I would have liked this as a giant New Yorker article, as it started out. I didn't put it down, because I loved the baseball feel, but I wish I had.