Memoirs are difficult to do well. A memoir is not an autobiography, which focuses on the author himself (e.g., Mahatma Gandhi or Malcom X). Rather, a memoir is about the times, the circumstances, or larger-than-life characters of the memoirist’s life. Often, memoir falls into nostalgia.
Grand Crossing—an “Irish-American Memoir”—has tremendous potential: the Great Depression, an Irish family in an ethnically diverse Chicago, a policeman as father. Unfortunately, the publication doesn’t live up to its possibilities.
Obviously, the reader knows this is Chicago during the Great Depression, but there is no sense of the time or the place in the vignettes that fill the book. While both are clearly in the author’s head, he fails to translate that to the page. The book doesn’t smell or taste of this great Midwestern city; it doesn’t say “Chicago.” It doesn’t impart the feel or texture of the Depression. And despite the subtitle, this is no coming-of-age work. The author doesn’t grow from youth to manhood; there is no revelation, no personal growth, no loss of innocence while gaining wisdom.
Although Grand Crossing has its engaging moments, they are not enough to carry the book. A car crash in Ohio while returning from vacation resulted in spending a night at a farmer’s house. Unfortunately, the reader learns nothing of the circumstances of the farmer’s home and life. The contrast of rural family life during the Depression to the author’s urban existence could have been revealing. A second story that held potential concerned the author’s oldest sister learning from their Aunt Elsie the truth about the sister’s conception and her parents’ marriage. Aunt Elsie’s motive reflects the aunt’s cruelty. Finally, near the end of the book, the reader learns of the involvement of the author’s father in a shootout where his father kills a man. This is truly riveting, but the conversation among the policemen in the car before the shootout is cloying and clichéd.
The bulk of the book is much blander and clearly outweighs these stronger stories. The reader is treated to two paragraphs on what kind of bath soap he and his family members use. An utterly predictable chapter is dedicated to the young boy looking at pictures of scantily clad women or sneaking peaks of girls through bedroom windows. “The Trial” chapter was undoubtedly amusing in the author’s remembrance, but the humor and poignancy don’t come out in the retelling.
The question of the priesthood for the author is a potential conflict. Throughout the book are references to Catholicism, and three chapters focus on this rich topic. Unfortunately, the author doesn’t explore the full fabric of the Catholic religion and what it means to him. The conflicting desires of father and son concerning the priesthood could have formed the basis for insight into religion, the father’s hopes and fears, and the son’s relation to his father.
Grand Crossing is framed by the author’s experience during and just after World War II. The conceit seems to be the author’s recall of his youth while living through the fighting in Europe. This frame may explain the often jarring switches between past and present tense. It also may explain the racial and ethnic slurs that appear occasionally throughout the book. The author may be trying to recreate a sense of the times when such slurs were acceptable. Only once—in the “Red & Me” chapter—are the slurs dealt with directly. Mr. James tells Jack McGuire that using such language is not acceptable. Did the author learn a lesson here? It’s not clear, since he is soon talking about getting a new job.
Grand Crossing is a straight retelling of a few high-jinks and stories with little color, tension, or insight. Self-published books are often referred to as “vanity press” titles. This book seems to fit that description: interesting for the author, less so for the reader.
April 2014, Dog Ear Publishing
$15.95, paperback, 208 pages
—Reviewed by Stephen Isaacs
Learn more about the book and the author.