Firebird: A Memoir

by Mark Doty

ISBN: 0060931973

One thing this book does is hand pieces of your own childhood back to you. At least,
that was one of the effects reading this sharply observed memoir had on me. Do you
remember the sound of kicking one of those red bouncing balls out on the playground? I hadn’t thought about kickball in years, and now I can hear that sound in my head.

Doty is that precise with his language. He is a poet (literally — L would say one of
our most gifted and under recognized poets) and his gift for language is evident throughout this book. I’d give you quotes, but I would soon wind up typing lines from the whole damn book here. Really, he’s that good.

I’m tempted to say he specializes in making the unbearable beautiful. His other prose book, Heaven’s Coast, is a memoir that deals with the loss of his lover Wally, who died of AIDS. This one reveals the stories of his “formative years” from early childhood to recognition of himself as an adult. There is loss and grief here too, but more rage and confusion and threats of violence. I was struck over and over again by the power of not knowing — his not knowing, because there was no way for him as an adolescent to know, how the pieces would eventually come together to make his own independent life possible.

I read this book because Heaven’s Coast was so good, and despite the fact it gets billed as a “gay coming of age in suburbia” story. There aren’t anything wrong with those stories, but promoting something that way robs the tale of its specific individuality, and it is talking about a book in a lowest-common-denominator kind of way, and doing that usually gets things wrong. I might read a memoir because I want to learn more about a specific person, but mostly I am just curious: I want to see, to the extent
I can, inside someone else’s head, or see the view from inside that head. I don’t read to get a sense of a demographic.

You don’t have to be gay, or a poet, or have an alcoholic parent, to identify with this book. If you were ever on the outside looking in, especially as a child, you will find something to identify with here. I suppose if you have never been an outsider (hard as that state is for me to imagine) you should read this book to see how everybody else grew up. If you have a belief in the power of art, the importance of creative connections, then you will find something here to strengthen those ideas.

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