By the third page of Casey Parks’s memoir, “Diary of a Misfit: A Memoir and a Mystery,” she’s shown how and where she doesn’t belong. Unable to console her mother about how her gayness jeopardizes her family’s fate in small-town Louisiana, the teenager retreats: “The rest of the day passed in a blur. I ate banana pudding alone in the carport. I read Beowulf in the backyard.” The day may have felt foggy, but Parks recounts it with acutely vivid details that will resonate with anyone who’s felt that they don’t fit in.
Parks’s facility as a vivid storyteller comes as no surprise. Readers familiar with her work in the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine know her as a thoughtful, precise journalist who communicates her characters’ humanity and the stakes of a story through evocative details. In her debut book, she focuses on her complicated relationship with the family members who passed on to her their skill with storytelling — and the challenging character who first made her want to use it. While both narratives are compelling, Parks’s writing shines in the story that she can meticulously report: her own.
Despite its title, “Diary of a Misfit” is about two misfits: Parks herself and Roy Hudgins, an enigmatic character who lived in the town of Delhi (pronounced “Dell-HIGH”), La. In the 1950s, the story goes, a neighbor made a deathbed confession to Parks’s great-grandmother: Her son, Roy, was “a woman who lived as a man.” Hudgins was a self-described town misfit, mowing lawns, playing music on his porch, living and dying alone. (Throughout the book, Parks questions how to gender Hudgins; following her lead, this review uses male pronouns.)
When Parks’s grandmother first tells her about Hudgins as a response to her sexuality, the story fascinates the young aspiring reporter, now a staff writer at The Washington Post. Over the next decade, she returns again and again to Hudgins’s story as a proxy for her own fears: Did his family love him? Was he happy? How can you preserve faith and community in an unaccepting church? Is home where we always belong?
Parks is an exceptional chronicler of her family and experience. She leans into the beats of stories she’s expertly honed over the years, like the indelible image of her mother, a pregnant bride, throwing up on the preacher at her wedding. She manages the rare feat of writing about her family with both an awareness of its flaws and a respect for privacy. She chooses revealing anecdotes carefully, alluding to family challenges that aren’t hers to share. A self-described listener, she chronicles her pain at a remove; when she writes about being whipped as a kid, it’s as a detached reporter. Some scenes feel straight out of Mary Karr, but without the raw rancor. She ends a chapter on her engagement with a quietly devastating kicker: “All I remember about what I’d imagined would be the biggest day of my life is dialing my mom’s number over and over again, listening to a robot tell me she had no space available.”
To find the details that make her story such a compelling read, Parks relies on her extensive journals, audio recordings and videos. She shares her obsession with self-documentation with Hudgins, who kept meticulous journals for decades. These spiral-bound journals are the white whale of “Diary of a Misfit,” the key to unlocking Hudgins’s story and, ostensibly, to providing answers to the questions Parks asks herself. Early on, she learns that Hudgins left his notebooks to his former neighbors, Mark and Cheryl. When she approaches them, they refuse to show the writing to her out of respect for his privacy.
Over a decade of visits to Delhi, Parks earns their trust. These return trips are ostensibly about Hudgins, but in her painstaking work to build relationships with largely suspicious Delhi residents, Parks shares her own evolution, as a reporter and a person comfortable with her sexuality and in her own skin. She shares her discomfort with pushing sources; her position as a local turned outsider; her gradual, earned confidence. On her trips from Portland, Ore., to Delhi, Parks often visits her family in nearby West Monroe, and she weaves together her reporting efforts and her evolving relationship with her mother with grace.
Parks struggles to bring that grace to Hudgins’s story. Some of it is the challenging source material — there are scant memories or details of his life to work with. Yet although she conducts ample historical research, combing through census records and newspaper microfiche, she isn’t comfortable conjuring the setting and conditions of Hudgins’s life. As a reader, I longed for a sense of what his life would have been like.
When Parks finally does get hold of the journals, the reveal is anticlimactic. After years of withholding them, Mark and Cheryl let her read them for a few hours, and she reckons with the quotidian sadness of Hudgins’s life. Clearly she hoped for more. After such a prolonged buildup, I wanted more, too: reflection not from Hudgins but from Parks, who occasionally seems like the reluctant subject of her own memoir.
“People write, I think, because they want to be understood and remembered,” Parks writes. At the end of “Diary of a Misfit,” despite the reveal of his journals, Hudgins’s life remains an incomplete contour. When it comes to his story, Parks raises questions that she ultimately shies away from. But while her commitment to reported detail leaves Hudgins’s story a mystery, it makes Parks’s memoir a compelling triumph.
Charley Locke is a writer who often covers elders and kids.
Diary of a Misfit
A Memoir and a Mystery
By Casey Parks
Knopf. 368 pp. $29