- Print Length: 208 pages
- Publisher: Pantheon (April 1, 2014)
- Sold by: Random House LLC
I had the pleasure of meeting author Kevin Brockmeier a couple summers ago, in the most idyllic setting imaginable for another literature loving native southerner. It was a literary cocktail party, nay a soirée, held in the shadow of William Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, in Oxford, MS. Sweaty fellow book fiends sipped mint juleps from clear plastic cups, nibbling snacks from little paper plates sagging in the humidity. It was hotter than hell; hot as June in Mississippi, which it was.
Author Tom Franklin was there, Jesmyn Ward wasn’t (she was a no-show; she called in sick). Also present was Susan Gregg Gilmore, a very sweet, pretty and feisty southern woman who writes sweet, feisty southern novels a la Fannie Flagg. Not my genre but the woman was an awful lot of fun at the book exchange held later. Her determination to snag the cookbook she wanted was downright vicious. I can respect that.
Two reps from Random House, Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman (their podcasts are hot stuff!), were the event facilitators. It was a mixer, a get-acquainted occasion setting the tone for a literary weekend in Oxford: a weekend of talks and book signings, book chats, eating far too much great food and shopping at the legendary Square Books. And again, shopping at the legendary Square Books. Good lord, did I shop at Square Books.
The next afternoon, Brockmeier was part of a panel of southern writers talking about what characterizes the fiction of the U.S. South, moderated by Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness. It’s a setting he knows well, having grown up in Arkansas and Mississippi, raised by his divorced parents: with his mother in Arkansas during the school year, in Mississippi with his father in the summer. This autobiography, while it is set in the South, does not rely on that. Rather, it’s the author’s own story of a boy’s life on the cusp of adolescence. It could have been set anywhere and been just as effective.
A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip starts with Kevin arriving back in Arkansas, reconnecting with his friends before school starts. They do the sorts of things boys do: hang out, throwing rocks at glass bottles; sleeping over at each other’s houses; eating junk food and watching TV. Despite the fun they had together, the time they’d spent apart over the summer had created a rift. The experiences his friends shared created new behaviors and “in” jokes, while Kevin stayed in the place they’d been over the previous school year. For him, time had stopped, freezing his friendships where he’d left them. Picking up again proved more difficult than he’d anticipated. Seventh grade was going to be very different.
When school starts, the rift widens. It starts with his friends giving him a hard time for making all the same old, tired jokes, then progresses to hostilities. Kevin goes about his life, pretty much a normal seventh grade kid able to dress out for gym faster than anyone else in the school, his sense of himself and his self esteem relatively high for a child shuttled back and forth between divorced parents. Not that he isn’t self aware, even occasionally fatalistic. He is at that pivotal age: 13. The time of life when things fluctuate quickly and often without warning. He can see early childhood behind him and high school in front. But for the most part, he manages to hang on to being a kid just a bit longer.
“Something washes through Kevin’s face. He would be willing to bet he is blushing, even if no one can tell. He sees his life as an endless series of but whys. Thad says you’re a liar. Kenneth isn’t speaking to you. Sarah will never kiss you again – it was only an accident of circumstance that she kissed you in the first place. It’s too late for you to become a different person. You’ll never be tall, and you’ll never be strong. You’ll always run fastest when no one is watching… Nothing you love is going to last. It’s impossible to rewind grades on their spool, impossible to pause them, impossible to replay the good parts.”
The man I met and observed in Oxford appeared reserved and quiet, not that a rambunctious, spirited kid in seventh grade can’t mature into a more serious man. If that were the case, the world would be full of overgrown adolescents. The book surprised me in that way. I was expecting to read the serious story of a quiet, introverted kid but while he was gangly and awkward, he was also social to the extent of any average kid his age. Maybe a bit more so, considering he had the gumption to write and act in a play he’d written, something a quiet child would never do (I, personally, would have rather died). What differentiates his childhood from the average is his imagination, the fact he was a kid who loved telling stories and read a lot. He’s resilient, funny and popular with a certain geeky group, plus girls and adults. The crumbling of the relationships with friends he’d had all his life hurt him but this kid wouldn’t allow defeat. Kevin Brockmeier had an awful lot of fortitude.
Putting further literary digging aside, the book is fun and funny, with a great depth. If you’ve read Brockmeier’s other books you’ll know he is a very serious, literary writer. His reputation is so strong, I was surprised he wrote an autobiographical book at all. Surprised and thrilled he’d let his guard down this much. How fun is it for a book nerd to get a glimpse into the youth of a favorite writer? I’ll tell you: outrageously fun. Crazy fun.
I enjoyed this book so much, appreciating what Brockmeier shared, even when the stories weren’t all that flattering or seemly, coming from a man with his credentials (SEE: Dressing as the only black kid in school, complete with makeup, in an ill-advised attempt to gain positive attention). While it could be read by someone looking for funny stories about a kid growing up in the South, its complexity and occasional forays into deeply introspective writing give it heft. Yes, there are some cringe-worthy moments most of us can identify with – to our shame – but overall it’s highly philosophical about the passage of childhood, not an “entertainment,” as such.
“Honestly, I just don’t want anything to change.”
“Me either,” says Thad.
“I’m sick of things being different all the time.”
He turns onto his left side, his sleeping side, and lies there listening to the whoosh of the air conditioner. The day keeps coming to light again in bits and pieces … and the tingle of his sweat cooling in a humming rectangle of air, and who liked him and how much and why? One by one his thoughts flow from their outlines like a cloud, and then the cloud rolls over him and he is asleep.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I requested A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip from Amazon Vine for review but I knew it would be good. Turns out, it’s better than that: it’s great.