By Rodney Crowell
By Rodney Crowell
Knopf. 259 pp. $24.95
Rodney Crowell's memoir of his boyhood in southeast Texas is a wonder: wistful and profane, heartbreaking and hilarious, loving and angry, proud and self-lacerating. Best known as a composer and performer of country and folk music, Crowell emerges here as a prose stylist of energy and distinctiveness, a gifted storyteller who has, as it happens, an uncommonly interesting and deeply American story to tell.
There's a coincidence here that can't go unmentioned. Between 1979 and 1992 Crowell was married to Rosanne Cash, herself a composer and singer of talent and accomplishment who is, of course, the daughter of Johnny Cash. The marriage ended in what he calls "our selfishly amicable and thoroughly modern divorce." "Ultimately," she says, "we both had to grow up, and we recognized that we couldn't do it together." But they've remained friendly, perform together from time to time, and now are authors of two of the loveliest memoirs to come my way in recent years. Her "Composed" was published last year, and now we have his "Chinaberry Sidewalks."
The chinaberry is a warm-weather shade tree that was brought to the United States a couple of centuries ago and has flourished in the South. It doesn't appear to have any particular aesthetic or botanical distinction, but in the spring of 1958, when Crowell was 8 years old, his mother, Cauzette Crowell, planted three chinaberries along the sidewalk in front of their house in Jacinto City, a "white-trash garden spot" a few miles due east of Houston. "Lacking imagination to match our industriousness," Crowell writes, "my mother and I named the trees J.W., Cauzette, and Rodney. Perhaps it was the intoxication of accomplishment that prompted us to christen the trees with our own names, or maybe the trees symbolized for the two of us a new chapter in our family history, in which case we wanted our names displayed front and center. Either way, our buoyancy was short-lived."
That was scarcely surprising, given that buoyancy - or any other form of happiness - was an infrequent visitor to the house on Norvic Street or any of the other shacks the Crowells lived in during Rodney's youth. J.R. and Cauzette waged an "ongoing war of hard words and physical abuse," struggled against a "crippling sense of disentitlement," and "his tendency toward unsubstantiated cockiness and her pinprick precision in delivering the right words at the wrong time [made] them doubly vulnerable to the bubble-bursting rifts that distinguish their marriage."
Married in Indiana in 1942, J.W. and Cauzette made their way to Texas and somehow managed "to go from a one-room log cabin with a dirt floor to the threshold of some spiffy new cracker-box palace in twelve short years," in a housing development of "cookie-cutter bungalows whose poor workmanship, lack of imagination, and cheap material destined them for an early demise." All the more so in the Crowells' case:
"Among the more crippling side effects of my parents' disentitlement was a dirt-poor sense of themselves that made them far better suited for the maintenance of property not their own - particularly my father, whose mathematical wizardry and carpentry skills emerged only when he was employed by a third party, preferably at below minimum wage."