He had the sensation of having been lost so many times it was a dream he never escaped. – Art Dennison
We first meet Art Dennison as a four-year-old living with his family in Camden, New Jersey in the summer of 1951, and over the course of twelve interconnected short stories The Shame of What We Are follows Art through to age seventeen and high school graduation.
As we look in on Art in those twelve snapshots of his life we are treated to an intimate peek into the mind of a sensitive, intelligent boy who struggles to cope with life-altering events such as a cross-country move, his parents’ divorce, his mother’s mental breakdown, and his own journey from overwhelmed and insecure to on the cusp of grasping the confidence needed for his burgeoning independence.
Along the way author Sam Gridley skillfully interweaves details about both pop culture (America’s burgeoning addiction to television, for example) and world events (the launch of Sputnik, desegregation) that make the 1950’s setting come alive in a wonderfully vivid manner. To that end, the dozen or so illustrations by artist Tom Jackson which are included marvelously capture the essence of the stories, helping bring them even further to life.
The Shame of What We Are is billed as “a novel in pieces” which is fitting, as Gridley’s glimpses into Art’s ruminations on his life and surroundings are reflective of both the scattershot and uneven way life happens, as well as how one slowly learns to cope with life’s trials and tribulations. From the joy and wonder of a wide-eyed child:
He could ride his trike down the entire block to the traffic light at the far corner, a manageable adventure. That was his goal today, but as he rode he got absorbed in the lines between the concrete squares. They came up one by one to whump under the wheels in hypnotic succession. Each crack was evil, a snake that wanted to grow bigger and bigger and destroy the sidewalk, or maybe all of New Jersey, but his trusty red trike squished each one beneath its front wheel and then bashed it again with two back wheels to make sure it was dead.
To a rather cynical young man on the verge of adulthood:
In Art’s evolving philosophy, families were a vestige of primitive times when a mated pair had to struggle against the ferocity of nature to protect and feed their offspring. In modern society, with nature tamed and people gripped by more tangential concerns (the fate of the Dodges, the price of a new car), families produced only tedium, stupid arguments, spite and psychosis.
The Shame of What We Are presents a truly engaging portrait of life in the U.S. in the 1950’s/early 1960’s as seen through one boy’s eyes. And while it was not the type of thing I normally read I enjoyed it tremendously, and therefore it was not only a great book but also a marvelous reminder of why we should all make an effort to read outside our comfort zones every once in a while.
The Shame of What We Are is available from New Door Books (ISBN: 978-0978863647)