Stories from a Boy's Life
By Lee Stringer. Seven Stories. 227 pp. $21.95 All of growing up, and the trot into manhood, can lead to captured memories, a room with a desk and the urge to get them all down, if one becomes a writer. Many have shared powerful stories of their coming-of-age. How does a youthful soul escape from, say, an alcoholic mom or a con-artist dad, and endure to remember the things that went awry, the darkness visited upon him? There is nothing like pluck, a life emerging from the shadows to stand tall and forge ahead. We admire such passion.
Lee Stringer shares the details of his own Huck Finn-like passage into maturity in Sleepaway School, a story about the two years he spent at a New York reform school in the 1960s. His crime wasn't the stuff of today's headlines. Scrapes and minor fisticuffs got him, a black kid from mostly white Long Island, shipped off to Hawthorne Cedar Knolls. Hawthorne took in at-risk kids, and Stringer, prone to fighting with others, qualified as a problem child.
Stringer wrote a previous book, Grand Central Winter, that told of his living as a homeless man on the streets of New York, awash in drugs and alcohol before -- pluck! -- he finally pulled himself up, picked up a pen and found success as a writer. Sleepaway School serves as a prequel to that book.
Stringer, his mother, Elizabeth, and brother, Wayne, moved to Mamaroneck, N.Y., from the Bronx. Mom was on welfare, dad who knows where. Stringer went to school, seemed quiet but temperamental with friends and teachers. His fighting caused worry, meetings with grownups. "It was," he remembers, "an unsettling thing -- seeing such concern etched upon so many grownup faces. And it had the rude effect of acquainting me, far, far too soon, with doubt. But they were right. We wee people were all at risk."
He found life unfolding before him as he rambled around his neighborhood, up and down the stairs of his rooming house: He found a fetus in a plastic bag; he cut himself with a fishing hook; he eyed the guests in the rooming house he lived in and imagined what kinds of lives they might lead. There is no emotional prelude to the day when he had to go off to Hawthorne. "Try to imagine what the place will look like," Stringer, no fan of declarative sentences, writes. "But can't. The name alone being too fancy for any point of reference I have. But it looms ominously just ahead. Around each curve. At the crest of every rise. And an uneasy feeling begins to bubble. A feeling of forced submission. Of things beyond my choice or control coming down on me." He seems to be setting us up for the expectation of little-boy dread, of spookiness. But life unfolded at Hawthorne with little drama. There were afternoon softball games, cursing, the exchange of racial epithets, pranks.
On a visit his mother brought fried chicken. They ate with their fingers, which is no crime in the comfort of home, but there, at Hawthorne, something awful washed over him. "Next thing I know everyone at the table is gaping at me. . . . A big, greasy, chicken-eating grin on my face. Like I never had a decent meal before in my life. A Currier & Ives portrait of me. The fried chicken suddenly obscene. My nose rendered bigger and wider than it is. My skin tinted black as coal." Weeks and months glided by. Another angry outburst sent him to a psychiatric ward. "The scariest thing of all, though," he writes about his brief stay at the mental hospital, "was discovering the sublime satisfaction I got out of life in a bathrobe. How willingly my desire for anything more than that had surrendered to the allure of blissful nothingness."
In a memoir one wants danger, wickedness, even a little blood. Stringer's tale is devoid of such attractions, and some might find it simply too quiet, especially if measured against the heartbreaking tone of his previous work. The truly poignant moments are in his observations of the people not at Hawthorne, but back at the rooming house he lived in when at home. Here is Hubert, sleeping: "Hubert was slumped across the bed. His shirt off. A do-rag wrapped around his head. A wisp of smoke curled from the stub of a Kool screwed into the corner of his mouth and made for the ceiling. It struck me how much he looked like a man doing time. How much his room resembled a prison cell. A place from which he would do well to make his escape."
Stringer's story ends after two years. He got a "Citizenship Award." It was printed on a scroll. He got his first kiss at a dance, and the world awaited him.
More of a reporter's details about Hawthorne -- the history of the place -- would have been welcome from Stringer. But his quiet tale has enough touching moments of little-boy endurance that, when finished, one is simply inclined to say: Well, bless his heart. *
Wil Haygood is a writer for the Style section of The Post. His most recent book is "In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr." His memoir, "The Haygoods of Columbus," was published in 1997.