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" and 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."
The $6,000 house, "essentially a tarpaper shack," steadily became a wreck, especially when Hurricane Carla thundered through in 1961. Holes appeared in the roof, but J.W. declined to fix them, "holding the opinion that a cooking pan and a wash pot - or three cooking pans and a bucket - were a better solution to a leaking roof than needless repair." In the kitchen, "sheetrock hung from the . . . ceiling like papier-mÃ¢chÃ© stalactites." All of which just made it easier for southeast Texas's mosquitoes and cockroaches to gain entry, which they did in hordes.
J.W. Crowell was a singular character. He drank as least as much as he worked, and when he was drunk he could be anything from sentimental to abusive. He "craved attention and preened after every ooh and aah he ever got." There was a "thin line between his heartless insensitivity and harmless self-absorption." And: "His Don Quixote commitment to harebrained notions was one of the things I loved most about him."
As for Cauzette, her "switches from Pentecostal purist to beer-guzzling shrew" were a source of astonishment to her son, as were the endless afflictions life visited upon her, among them - during her early years - "polio, acute dyslexia, epilepsy, the sudden death of an infant son, and a subsequent case of whacked-out nerves." She dragged Rodney to church every Sunday: "Hating these holy-rolling, speaking-in-unknown-tongues free-for-alls she loves so well, I do my best to make the trip more miserable than it already is. It's a testament to her faith in an angry and kind and vengeful and loving God that she sees this two-mile slog with her son kicking and screaming as a small price to pay for salvation."
It's a measure of the subtlety that Crowell brings to his portrait of his parents that he simultaneously is appalled by them and deeply loves them. After setting forth chapter and verse about his father's failings and failures, he stops to say: "By now I hope it's clear that apart from his manhandling my mother, I idolized my father and had learned at an early age to view his fragile self-imaginings with bemused detachment." Coming to terms with his mother took longer, in large part because of his distaste for her fevered religiosity, but after his father's death at age 65 - "Call it maudlin, manipulative, or simpleminded, but as I see it he died of a broken heart" - she became close to him and was adored by his daughters. The book's last two chapters, in which he describes each of his parent's last days, are deeply moving and filled with love.
Love, in the end, is what "Chinaberry Sidewalks" is really about. "As a boy my favorite place in the world was my grandmother's apron-covered lap," Crowell writes. "Rocking on her lap and listening [on the radio] to a live Carter Family performance, I remember knowing for the first time that I was loved. In time I came to understand the nature of her love as being part of an even greater love, one that loved my grandmother for loving me." Later, there was a shoe-shine man known as Spit-Shine Charlie, who befriended the boy and showed him another kind of love. His grandmother and Charlie died "within a year and a half of each other." Crowell continues:
"Their deaths triggered a prolonged period of muted loneliness that lasted until the birth of my children. And with the arrival of each of my daughters, the ability to love without expectation came bubbling slowly from the forgotten depths of who I was when I first crawled up in my grandmother's lap. Thanks to the abused wife of a sharecrop farmer, a crippled shoeshine man, and four little girls, I was able to emerge from the dark forest of an angry heart into the light of love that will forever exist between my parents and me."
This is the emotional and thematic core of "Chinaberry Sidewalks," but there is much more to it, much of it uproarious or moving in different ways: boisterous small-town boys making mischief, Tom Sawyers and Huck Finns with cuss words added; seeing and hearing Hank Williams two weeks before his death; a spectacular show by Jerry Lee Lewis ("Raw sexual energy and death-defying audacity"), followed immediately by an unforgettable one by Johnny Cash, who "spoke the language of common people with uncommon eloquence." That, of course, is exactly what Rodney Crowell has done in this splendid book.
By Rodney Crowell
Knopf. 259 pp. $24.95