‘Muck’ is the real thing: good writing
Our appetite for “reality’’ seems to have no bottom, to wit the latter-day memoir, which started out as fad, leapt to trend, and now apparently has settled into something like solid literary staple. As has been widely observed, today’s literary memoir often resembles what was once labeled an autobiographical novel. Of course liberties were taken with autobiography then, and if a contemporary memoirist is smart, liberties are taken now, which is to say readers are probably less interested in getting the so-called facts about someone they do not know than they are in experiencing something artistic and whole.
“Muck,’’ by Craig Sherborne, is that uncommon memoir that could also fit the profile of an excellent literary novel. The story captivates from the start. Centered on the author’s 16th year, the narrative traces the efforts of his nouveau riche parents to start up a vanity farm in the wilds of New Zealand. These parents of his are hardly role models. Both are insufferable snobs, and his mother endures bouts of paranoid mania that one suspects may permanently scar her precious only child. Sherborne plays this dire situation for neither straight-up sentiment nor heart-tugging pathos. Instead, he renders it brightly, comically, scathingly, a steady diet of satirical humor and elliptical, unnerving pain that never lets up.
When it comes down to it, doesn’t every literary work, novel, memoir, whatever, live and die by its rendering? When the boy suffers, the adult author lays down a line of prose that grabs and sustains. His sentences are precise, rhythmic, and unblinking. They cleave toward the exquisitely profane and deliciously half-strange in the manner that Emily Dickinson called “telling all the truth, but telling it at a slant.’’
Some of the best lines are unquotable on account of vulgarity, whether it’s amid one of his manic mother’s crazy blue streaks, or when the young narrator finds himself getting an unvarnished lesson in barnyard sex. Still, just about every sentence in the book delivers a distinct and briny tang. About one of the farm workers: “He keeps his tobacco in a round tin like a culture. It could be cuttings of his ginger beard and chest hairs. He smokes it to the dark-brown last of the rolling paper which sticks to his bottom lip like the top off a sore.’’ Or when he gets drunk for the first time: “Whisky is the master of it. It says, ‘Follow me into the mist.’ Not the mist for hiding in that smoke conjures, but the mist of all the world’s warmth and good intentions. I am the world’s centre in that mist. I am the world’s most perfect man.’’
This variety of prose flaunting a sort of look-at-me quality that’s a challenge to pull off can take time getting used to. The first pages of “Muck’’ send up readerly warning flares along the lines of: This book may be more exhausting than fun. And yet soon you are folded into its seductive rhythms. As with the best writing, you find yourself squaring the world on its very terms. In this case, it’s a jagged, biting, and frankly disturbed place where we all live and breathe.
In the end it’s difficult not to wonder if this isn’t a novel parading as a memoir. The patterns of experience are perhaps a hair too artful, the thematic resonances hit a little too provocatively and hard. The characters, one might say, are half-again too vivid. And yet, if you are reading for the facts, you have probably quit by the end of Page 1. Continue past that point and you will exit the far end having learned and, more importantly, felt a lot more than mere facts.
Ted Weesner Jr., a writer in Somerville who teaches at Tufts University, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.