Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel

Two things I don’t care for much are memoirs and audiobooks. The people that read the audiobooks either speak too slowly or get the voices all wrong. With memoirs, it’s always the doom and gloom factor that gets me—someone was abused or has some problem with addiction or—you get the point, and in the end you can’t put it down and know it’s just fabricated like you can with fiction. The last memoir I tried to listen to, Unbearable Lightness, made me want to give up on the whole consuming food thing all together. My mother gave me a memoir on audiobook and despite all of the many ways that could go wrong I had to listen to it because it was a gift. If I had known the only problem with it would be trying not to laugh hysterically in my cubicle at work, I would have listened to A Girl Named Zippy months ago.

The catch about Zippy is that it’s a memoir of a happy childhood. Like all childhoods, there are the scattered introductions to heartbreak, but there's nothing basement-level-sorrow-inducing here. In her case, it’s finding that the chicken she loved had been killed by some local dogs and watching other friends experience family woes and grief and not quite knowing how to handle it. Other than those two things, her biggest problems (on the page, at least) were obstacles like having to reclaim her best elementary school friend from the cool new kid from LA that brought culture and a leather jacket to their small town of Mooreland, Indiana and trying to talk her way out of going to the Quaker church with her mom each Sunday morning. Her stories are mostly centered around the quirky cast of characters from the town they live in and her family, who swore they bought her from a pack of traveling gypsies. The novel is full of normal childhood moments that were relatable to my own childhood: the attempted séances at slumber parties, simultaneously hating and worshiping older siblings, going crazy over decoupage and crafts only to discover that you aren’t particularly talented in the art department, and having major crises over the state of one’s hair. There was also a period where she recorded everything she could on a little cassette tape, which I vaguely remember trying to do with a YakBak without much success.

The thing that I enjoyed the most about the book was Kimmel’s ability to narrate everything from the voice of her childhood self without dumbing down the content. While I obviously can’t speak to the accuracy of that voice as I didn’t know her twenty some years ago, I can say with certainty that it’s believable:

"I figure heaven will be a scratch-and-sniff sort of place, and one of my first requests will be the Driftwood in its prime, while it was filled with our life. And later I will ask for the smell of my dad's truck, which was a combination of basic truck (nearly universal), plus his cologne (Old Spice), unfiltered Lucky Strikes, and when I was very lucky, leaded gasoline. If I could have gotten my nose close enough I would have inhaled leaded gasoline until I was retarded. The tendency seemed to run in my family; as a boy my uncle Crandall had an ongoing relationship with a gas can he kept in the barn. Later he married and divorced the same woman four times, sometimes marrying other women in between, including one whose name was, honestly, Squirrelly."

See what I mean?

The thing that got me the most about the book, though, was Kimmel’s relationship with her father. She knows he only gets drunk at work but she’s not quite sure if he works or what he does. He plays the best prank on their neighbors I’ve ever heard of in my life. When someone messes with his kids, he gets pay back. While he doesn’t agree with a lot of things the mother says or does, he still backs her, regularly giving Kimmel a look she says means, “I respect every way in which you are a troublemaker, but get up and do what your mother says."

While her parents are genuinely good people and actively show her love and support, they aren’t always the most involved or strict and usually don’t exactly know what’s she’s up to. After visiting a friend’s home and witnessing a different family dynamic, she says, "They did a lot of cleaning in their house, which I considered to be a sign of immoral parenting. The job of parents, as I saw it, was to watch television and step into a child's life only when absolutely necessary, like in the event of a tornado or a potential kidnapping." This is probably because her Dad is usually doing something smart assed and her mother is constantly just making her dent in the couch bigger, rereading science fiction, which leads to a misunderstanding where Kimmel thinks her mother is having an affair with Isaac Asmov. (This leads to Kimmel's second memoir, She Got Up Off the Couch, which details her mother finally doing just that.)

The best part of the book (for me) was the scene where the father tells Kimmel he’s going to take her to his church since neither of them believe in God so she can see his version of religion. When he takes her out to the middle of a campground to sit in the woods, she gets confused, because there’s no proper pews or minister or singing. He asks her, “What does the Bible say about where one or more are gathered?” and she tells him that equals fellowship, but there aren’t any people out there for fellowship. He points out the Bible doesn’t say one or more people, just one or more in general, and he’s having fellowship with this group of trees and that group of birds… that there's one or more of a lot of things to have fellowship with out in nature. While the school aged Kimmel is no devoted Quaker like her mother, she doesn’t seem to be able to get behind her dad’s brand of religion either, but there in the woods they make the most of it. It reminded me quite a bit of some moments I shared off the parkway with my college friends up in the mountains. (Unfortunately, somehow those moments also usually involved them being high and/or naked, but that’s neither here nor there.)

While Kimmel finds every excuse in the book not to go to church with her mother, at one point she decides she wants to bond with a girl she considers to be holy that informs Kimmel that in order to be a good Christian, you’ve got to do good works. Feeling put upon, she reconsiders that friendship after her quests to do good deeds turn into minor disasters. Later, she decides she wants Jesus to be her boyfriend, and she says of him, "On Jesus: "Everyone around me was flat-out in love with him, and who wouldn't be? He was good with animals, he loved his mother, and he wasn't afraid of blind people." She waits for boyfriend Jesus in the woods and her family doesn’t discourage her because they think it’s finally an act of dedication. Since she seemed earnest about it and she was only a kid, I laughed endlessly at this without feeling like I was cracking up over something sacrilegious. Kimmel eventually went to study theology at a divinity school but I'm not sure where she stands on faith now.

The last two best things about Kimmel are that she studied creative writing at NCSU and she currently lives in my home state which I appreciate because this means there’s finally an author I like that I may be able to realistically catch at a book signing. (How I always manage to miss Sedaris has become an ongoing point for frustration. Also, don't point out that he writes memoirs, becuase they are in the fiction section.)


Christopher said...

I think it may have been more appropriate to record this review as a podcast.

Brooke said...