March 2006

Carrie Jones

nonfiction

Perishable: A Memoir by Dirk Jamison

It's the '70s in sunny California and Dirk Jamison's dad is searching for his Self. On the way, he drags his wife and three kids around the West Coast and into one bizarre living situation after another. A major component of dad's philosophy is doing whatever you want whenever you want, and this includes not working when you can just as easily get food and furniture from the trash. The book opens with a telling scene of his mother on the phone while making Dirk a fantastically decorated birthday cake:

She tells the phone this:

Now with me, you start cutting from the end of the watermelon and everyone has a slice. His way is to cut down the middle and eat the heart out, because that's the part he wants. I told him he's being selfish. The heart is the best part, and you should only take your share of the best part. But he says he can take whatever he wants.

She's talking about Dad. Her tone of voice suggests that the phone line leads to one of her Mormon sisters living in Oregon. It's the third time she's told this story today.

Much of Perishable's story comprises the set up of and fallout from Jamison Sr.'s lost-boy routine, which grows evermore zany as the book goes on. Besides trash-picking dinner and curing arthritis with bee stings, the Jamison household is constantly in the midst of some kind of poorly conceived DIY nightmare, often involving blood. When their mother moves to Oregon and back to the Mormon Church for comfort and support, the kids' lives hardly improve. Jamison portrays a Mormon lifestyle that is just another world with nonsensical rules and unreliable adults, most notably the almost cliqued specter of a pedophile Boy Scout leader.

Jamison writes himself as a believable middle child, sensitive to his parents' every emotion and, as the oldest boy, the wary companion to his father during his manias. He learns more than a child should ever know about the circumstances of his parents' relationship through overheard conversations, accusatory notes between husband and wife and scary moonlit walks with his dad. The parents use him for reassurance, and some of the most gut-wrenching parts of the book are when young Dirk feels torn apart by responsibility as he grapples with his parents' versions of reality. The few glimpses we see of Dirk without direct reference to his parents show a boy who knows he has a target on his chest, but can't use his maxed-out emotional antennae to know when to run.

Perishable includes many instances of ugly adult sexuality. What Jamison also manages to capture are the forgotten (and repressed) rituals and discoveries of child sexuality that happen in an adult world. By chronicling these private (and not so private) moments, he creates an intensely relatable picture of the twisty roads we travel into adulthood.

Reading Perishable means being faced with things that most people have to forget in growing up. Jamison is great at exposing his childhood desires and the pain that resulted from never having them fulfilled without fear of a cruel punchline. Perishable also chronicles the amazing time in the post-hippie United States where living off the grid was possible and in Dirk's father, a portrait of a man who mangled his family trying it.

Perishable: A Memoir by Dirk Jamison
Chicago Review Press
ISBN: 1556525990
224 pages