NONFICTION: A Pity Thing
Greg Bottoms, Fight Scenes (Counterpoint, 2008)
Greg Bottoms is not one to find solace or seek truth in the past. His memory knows no transcendence, no nostalgia, and the whole act feels more like a curse to struggle against. Fight Scenes, then, seems as apt a title as any for this catalog of “memories to walk away from.”
Our guide through the inferno is Bottoms at twelve, accompanied by his muse, best friend, and fellow cretin, Mark, who is destined for repeat humiliations as the boys go about the business of getting stoned, groped, and beat up in the eviscerating heat of a summer in Newport News, VA.
Like Mark, so much that the boys encounter in their suburban ramble is broken, right down to the shoelaces. So much comes in pieces that can’t be put back together. Rust is everywhere. It’s on the hatchet blade, the refrigerator handle, on car fenders, car bumpers, on a card table, a grill. It’s in the taste of blood and the smell of a stranger come too close. In such a wasteland as this, what glistens or pretends at harmony does so as something surreal.
Standing outside a majestic brick home bordered by flower beds—“a nice house”—Bottoms proclaims: “I had the momentary feeling of walking into a half-remembered dream…There were no cars in the driveway. No traffic on the street…We waited, but no one came.”
No one ever comes when the damned come knocking. So the past endures as a failure that can’t be wished away, and remembrance of it stings with a lingering embarrassment. These aren’t stories. They are the purging of a guilty conscience: “All over my childhood are these memories to walk away from.”
But how can one shake off the skinned-knuckle reality of a past that never ceases in its affront to the grown man who wants to dismiss it? Bottoms doesn’t try for our sympathy, or if he does, he fails. So when he talks about his soul, even that is mingled with the dirty laundry: “My soul fell down through my body and got wrapped around my ankles like a pair of baggy jeans.”
Any semblance of a pure self that dares to inhabit this world of things that fall apart must itself fall apart. For those whose sex education is got through the misogyny of drunken men and a shoebox full of pornographic polaroids, for those who “have been shaped by the banality and stupidity of violence,” there is no pure self, and no hope for one either—not for those with an “ulcerated soul” that is “full of holes.”
That isn’t to say that we never feel for this cast of losers. Our sympathy, though, is reserved for the inarticulate: “a pity thing, the way certain girls love helpless animals.” It’s wholly ironic.
We feel for these pimpled, stubbly and otherwise pockmarked creatures in that we feel bad for them. Yet they nevertheless, at odd moments and in inexplicable fits of clarity, speak their desires—even when that means they reveal that there’s nothing to reveal—and earn more than just our pity.
There’s twelve-year-old Bottoms dazzled by a flower garden: “‘Wow,’ was all I could think to say.” There’s Rusty, “the roofer who always hung around,” drunk and belligerent. “A lot of his stories headed toward the phrase ‘and then I decked the guy.’” There’s Hazel, the fourteen-year-old “school slut” whose courtship ritual proceeds from insult—“you’re ugly”—to a play at violence—“let’s wrestle”—to real, bloody violence—“she grabbed my arm … blood pooled”—to the self-loathing that was lying in wait during the whole pathetic show: “That was totally an accident. You hate me now, don’t you?…You do. I don’t blame you. You should hate me…Everyone hates me. Even my dad.”
If this book sparkles at all it is in these moments of transparency when communication really occurs, despite the inadequacies of the speakers. And often, this transparency demands that language itself—which can’t help but get at the universal—must shed its trappings. Words are too much, too distant, for such as these, and only the most mute fragment of the thing itself will do to signal the gut-wrench that jerks at the heart of it all—as when Bottoms “can’t think of what to say” to tell Mark about his first kiss.
“There was too much to say, and I was unable then to give shape or meaning to any of it. I held out my bloody arm as if to explain.”