This beautiful, devastating little book is quite unlike anything else I’ve ever encountered, and if you grew up in a small town in the 1980s feeling even remotely marginal, it’s specifically engineered to break your heart.

Our Secret Life in the Movies” has an extraordinary structure: Co-authors Michael McGriff and J.M. Tyree have assembled a list of 39 obscure art-house films as the starting point for a collection of brief, jagged improvisations on their respective youths. The result is a double-barreled bildungsroman of gothic, middle-American squalor and ruin. This sounds, in the abstract, pretentious and forced, but the result is flickeringly poetic. “I was just another latchkey kid with divorced parents,” one of the narrators mourns. “This was Reagan’s America, and I was a few too many dimensions in over my head.”

The relation between the vignettes they’ve written and the movies they’ve chosen, which range from classics by Tarkovsky and Kurosawa to oddities by Jens Lien and David Gordon Green, remains mercifully elliptical. Ingeniously, the movie-list concept serves as an organizing principle, but the true topics of the book’s evocative fragments are loneliness, anomie and desolation. As the dreamlike snapshots slip by — riddled with references to Dungeons & Dragons, the Dead Kennedys, methamphetamine, cheap cars, desperate sex, Jesus cults, neo-fascist skinheads, all the bizarre forgotten detritus of those strange times — the prose gradually accumulates a mesmerizing glow. “Before it was a sad place to get laid or get your teeth kicked out,” begins one sequence, “I spent my time at the combo bowling alley-roller rink.”

The authors don’t romanticize their hardscrabble origins, as is so fashionable in certain literary circles. “Chasing a fistful of diet pills with gin” or “eating meatloaf in front of the TV on Fridays, waiting for the right lottery numbers to be drawn” was just what you did, devoid of significance, empty of political meaning. We know from the author note, of course, that both of these men made it out of the blasted purgatoria of their youth and into the sunlight of academic and professional success. (Tyree, as it happens, is the Washington-based associate editor of the New England Review.) But the narratives are haunted by alternate possibilities. In a sense, the book is a memento mori for the parallel existences of those — the suicides, the overdoses, the lives lost to burnout and poverty — that they left behind, that we all left behind.

Lindgren is a writer and musician in New Jersey.

"Our Secret Life in the Movies" by Michael McGriff and J.M. Tyree (A Strange Object/A Strange Object)

By Michael McGriff and
J.M. Tyree

A Strange Object. 153 pp. Paperback, $14.95