THE BOY AND THE DOG ARE SLEEPING
Ballantine. 324 pp. $22.95
THE NEXT BETTER PLACE
A Father and Son on the Road
By Michael C. Keith
Algonquin. 284 pp. $23.95
WAITING FOR SNOW IN HAVANA
Confessions of a Cuban Boy
By Carlos Eire
Free Press. 383 pp. $25
Boyhood, in the popular imagination, is a period marked by mischievous activity, a scatological and sexual interest in the body and a preoccupation with pop culture, especially movies. Three new memoirs reinforce such familiar ideas while belying the idyll they suggest. If pre-adolescence is for the boys in these books a time without real responsibility, it's also a time without power. They are at the mercy of adult institutions -- familial, educational, medical and political -- and also of individual adults, most of whom are only slightly better equipped to make their way in the world than their charges.
In The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping, Nasdijj, a half-Navajo writer, teacher and activist, tells of having adopted Awee, an 11-year-old boy with AIDS. (Nasdijj's well-received 2000 memoir, The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams, told the story of an earlier adopted son who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and eventually died.) Nasdijj and Awee spent about a year together -- Nasdijj is willfully fuzzy about dates and places -- during which they were often on the road, in search of both better medical treatment and adventures. "I did not have Awee in school," Nasdijj writes. "I know, I am a rotten person."
Awee was frequently either sick or in pain -- bathroom and hospital scenes are described in unflinching detail -- but he still jumps off the page. He loved baseball and maps, didn't like to wear a robe because it was too much like a dress, and, while walking out of Wal-Mart, asked questions such as, "How come some condoms say ribbed? What's a rib on a condom?"
Nasdijj, who had been suicidal before Awee's arrival, was both fiercely protective of the boy and disdainful of conventional fatherhood. He and Awee traveled by motorcycle, drank champagne and stole a Jesus statue from a church so that Awee could build a shrine. "Life with Awee had an immediacy to it that was inescapable," Nasdijj writes. "You did things now." This unconventional parenting extended to medicine -- as Awee's pain increased, Nasdijj first smoked pot with him and later injected him with heroin.
The author regularly lapses into nonsensical rhyming prose -- "My boys are the strength of winter's thirsty trees. Their leaves a flowing in the blowing of the breeze" -- and his choice to do so at the end keeps Awee's death so abstract as to hardly register. Usually, however, the writing is vivid and immediate, crackling with anger, humor and love. The problem with this book isn't that it's not engrossing, because it is -- but that it's also pretty disturbing.
Throughout it, an energy exists between Nasdijj and Awee that can only be described as erotic. Nasdijj takes pains to point out, both to Awee and to the reader, the physical boundaries he has established -- even as the two share a bed. It's hard to see that Nasdijj deserves congratulations for restraining certain impulses -- or for admitting to them -- when those impulses are, to begin with, so inappropriate. "I was in love with him," he writes of Awee, and later, "I had worked with lots of boys his age who had developed crushes on me. . . . But I had never worked with one I had a crush on." Two scenes are especially troubling. In one, sensing it's what Awee wants to hear, Nasdijj tells him that their cuddling is indeed sex. In the other scene, while Awee is out on a date of sorts, Nasdijj longingly rubs his adoptive son's underwear against his face.
There is no doubt that Nasdijj loved Awee, or that Awee was better off for having been adopted. And yet what is in many ways a beautiful book ultimately leaves you with a sense not of admiration but of discomfort.
The Next Better Place, by Michael C. Keith, is not a beautiful book, though it tries mightily and contains subject matter rich enough that, in the hands of a better writer, it might have succeeded. In 1959, 11-year-old Michael left behind his mother and two younger sisters in Albany, N.Y. -- his parents were divorced -- and joined his father, Curt, on a cross-country journey that lasted almost two years, taking them to California and back. They hitchhiked, took buses when they had the money (Curt got low-paying jobs that never lasted) and slept wherever it was cheapest.
A grouchy, dishonest alcoholic who didn't bathe but was so vain that he blackened his graying eyebrows with a Maybelline pencil, Curt should be an interesting character. But he isn't, and neither is anyone else in this memoir, including Michael himself, who comes off as a not particularly bright or curious kid. And yet his child's viewpoint is the only one that's given. The book is written in the present tense, in the voice of an 11-year-old (albeit not a very convincing one, with diction such as "She is only mildly placated by his oratory"), and there is little analysis or insight from the grown-up author.
Events seem to be included not because they mean anything but because they happened -- Michael and his father eat an ordinary meal, or get a ride from someone neither of them ever sees or thinks about again. The book is full of details that have no significance and characters who don't matter. Attempts to create drama, however, come off as false and forced. Michael claims to be infatuated with the idea of California, but the writing is so flat that it's impossible to feel his infatuation, and indeed once they get there, they don't stay long. Whether Michael is talking about his love of movies, his loneliness or even his physical feelings of hunger, he always does so in a tone that's distant and explanatory. Of his restlessness on the road, for example, he writes: "So we have not really gotten that far, I grimly surmise, and that realization dampens my mood significantly."
At the end of the book, several months after Michael and Curt have returned to Albany, Michael is the one who seeks out his father to convince him to head out again, this time for Florida. We never find out if they went. More significant, given that Michael usually seemed unhappy on their first trip, we never find out why he hoped they would. In a better book, these would be urgent questions; in this one, the answers don't make much of a difference.
In all the ways that The Next Better Place fails, Carlos Eire's Waiting for Snow in Havana succeeds. Eire tells of growing up privileged in 1950s Havana, of his life's changing as Fidel Castro assumed power and of having been sent at the age of 11 to the United States to live in orphanages and foster homes. A biographical note at the back says that this is the "first book without footnotes" for Eire, now a history and religion professor at Yale. He has done a splendid job.
The memoir is masterfully written, bursting with wonderful details and images and populated by characters so well described that they seem to be sitting next to you on the couch. Granted, Eire has a lot of material to work with: He lived in a house of marble and art, with a father who believed that in a past life he was Louis XVI and that his wife was Marie Antoinette. ("Learn this and learn it early, so it doesn't come as a shock later," an older cousin told Carlos. "Our family is interested in three things only: ancestors, death, and good taste.") Louis XVI -- as Carlos's father is called in the book -- was a judge, which meant that the family could go to movies for free and also that those who were displeased with his decisions in court left voodoo messages on the front porch: "Foul-smelling trinkets and coins. Rotting fruit wrapped in red ribbons. Bloody feathers." Carlos and his brother Tony attended the same school as President Batista's children, where Christian Brothers taught the students that Cuba was paradise and gave advice such as, "Don't ever look at your chauffeur's dirty magazines."
As Carlos's world changed, the story Eire tells becomes familiar -- a political story in personal terms. Che Guevara's mansion, a few blocks down the street, was where Carlos and his friends went to beg the guards for bullets to play with; Fidel Castro hit on the daughter of family friends at a restaurant, accompanied her home, then revealed his bad manners by drinking an entire liter of rationed milk.
Though the book is in places very funny, it's also weighted by stories of relatives who were unjustly imprisoned, by the adult Eire's understanding of all that has happened and by the split between Carlos's Cuban life and his American one. Their father chose to stay behind, but Carlos, Tony and their mother eventually were reunited in a basement apartment in Chicago, where they worked miserable jobs and were sick and isolated.
Eire has a leisurely, conversational way of telling his story. He speaks directly to the reader ("I'm sure you know what I'm talking about"), digresses on irreverent fantasies involving philosophy and religion, and regularly circles back to the same subjects. The book has its flaws, but once you've fallen under the spell of the author's charming, sympathetic, sorrowful voice, they all seem minor. Cubans, he says, "love much too deeply." He presents this as a shortcoming, but without that love, both for his family and for the country he left behind, it seems unlikely that Eire could have written such an extraordinary book. *
Curtis Sittenfeld is the writer in residence at St. Albans School.