A memoir told as fiction or fiction made into memoir, so how much is fact and how much is fiction? The answer to this, I think, is: Does it matter?
Whether factual or not, it sounds true. It feels true. And when telling a story, that’s what matters. And Jones builds a world here, builds Greenwood, Texas, a place I have never even been within 1,000 miles of, a place most of us have probably never seen and never will see. He does not build it in the way Joyce built Dublin or Balzac and Dickens invented Paris and London, but he makes an emotional sphere that we step inside and feel wrap round us, showing us not necessarily what is true but what feels true. His childhood is what we fall into, and it is told the way those distant memories exist within us: impressionistic, out of order, a sort of glimmer at the edges, and everything just a bit more grand or a shade more ominous.
The story, in simple terms, is a detective story where Jones is the detective, and the mystery appears, at first, to be about a fire that happened in his childhood. As the mystery begins to unfold, we come to realise that the real mystery is childhood itself and what makes it possible, what leads us from there into the present. The story shifts between the record of the past and his present encounters with the people who were there and what they remember. In this way the mystery deepens, Greenwood fleshes out, the place comes alive, not as an artifact of its own past but as a place that still lives and breaths, though haunted by what happened there.
This is a memoir, or close enough to where it does not matter, and so it is ultimately about Jones and his relationship to this place, to his family and friends, to the world that surrounded him whilst he was young, and it becomes clear that the ghosts are all his and this place, Greenwood, is where he left maybe all of them. A book so personal to the author, we cannot help but be drawn in and feel the emotions working here, even if, at times, it feels as if we are standing on their periphery. There are moments, for the reader, where the emotions miss and, though we know the importance of the moment, can recognise how we are meant to feel, we are at arm’s reach from the emotions, watching them happen rather than feeling them. A story so personal, it sometimes guards itself from the peering eyes of its readers even when it most needs us to care, to understand.
For a writer so imaginative and difficult to pin down, this is certainly his most straightforward novel and easiest to read. Growing up Dead in Texas may not be my favorite by Stephen Graham Jones but it is certainly his best since 2008’s Ledfeather. With all the tricks of a novel at his disposal, Jones makes this memoir something more than just a record of his childhood, but a deeply involving story wired together by personalities and histories, all caught within this atmosphere, this place–Greenwood, Texas. Whether novel or memoir or some offspring of the two, it manages to tell the truth.
About the reviewer:
Edward J Rathke writes for The Lit Pub and Manarchy Magazine.