A Common Pornography is neither common nor, by today's standards, pornographic. It is more accurate to call Kevin Sampsell's fragmented, moving memoir a Bildungsroman (albiet a true one). More precisely, for those keeping score at home with their glossary of literary terms, it is a nonfiction Künstlerroman, the story of an artist's struggle from innocence to experience, in this case from small-town youth to fully fledged, urbane writer. One of the many interesting aspects of the story is that Sampsell never plays up or celebrates this transformation; rather, his story moves from one decisive moment to next until he arrives back home, in more ways than one, changed by his experience.
In fact, struggles are rarely foregrounded in the book, although Sampsell has them in spades. The early chapters of A Common Pornography place us in Kennewick, one-third of the Tri-Cities area in Southwestern Washington, where Sampsell lived through high school. (The author writes that he thought Kennewick, recently named "the Slurpee capital of the world," was "the ideal place to grow up. Of course, this was before I even saw anywhere else.") These chapters are especially brutal, unsentimental, spare. Working from memory and what he calls "recollected truth" that comes from interviews and research, the author introduces us to his father, a temperamental man who throws fits around his house and goes to confession every Saturday; a mother who has gone through the wringer of previous abusive marriages; and four half-siblings who appear in various shades of closeness and familiarity.
Even when he's capturing a horrifying moment, such as his half-sister's internment in a mental ward, Sampsell keeps his sentences short and simple, a style that resembles the deadpan, writing-degree-zero voice of Tao Lin and Stephen Elliott. Descriptive asides and figurative language are rare, but the vignette-like chapters never feel plain so much as naked. There is sexual and physical abuse. Some stories are horrid, others shocking. Here is one chapter, quoted in full, called "Vibrator":
Dad gave me a vibrator once. Sort of oval-shaped. He gave it to me so I could wrap it and give it to Mom as a birthday present. Later, they kept it in a drawer by the bed. Then, shortly after, they slept in separate beds.
As in most of the book, readers are asked to draw our own conclusions. We rarely find out what the memoirist feels, an effective method of raising the dramatic ante. Sampsell, a good-bad Catholic boy who stashes nudie mags in the ceiling and, hilariously, inside a suitcase, records the family drama around him and lets it speak for itself. There is, throughout, a sense of trepidation; to appropriate poet Robert Hayden's words, he fears the chronic anger of his house. So Sampsell finds pleasure and love outside his home—in art, music, junk food, and, perhaps most obsessively, sex. He keeps track of how many times he does it with one of his first girlfriends (63), and fine-tunes his technique with multiple partners.
What is especially refreshing about this memoir is how its seventies and eighties milieu is presented—a middle-class neighborhood neither idyllic nor romanticized. Cultural references—Kiss, plastic football helmets, Depeche Mode, Anita Baker, a Lionel Ritchie concert—are neither paraded nor parodied but are merely present. Sampsell's dialogue avoids the pumped-up, movie-friendly exchanges usually found in more commercial memoirs.
Most coming-of-age memoirs come full circle, as the protagonist looks back at the past as if through someone else's eyes, and offers lessons and morals for its readers. But A Common Pornography doesn't rely on external struggle so much as an internal one. Sampsell doesn't express desire to get out of the house—he stayed around his family longer than most angry young men might—but rather to create his own sensibility.
Early on, readers might be curious or unclear over what this sensibility is—we know he was compelled to express his "weirdness" as a young boy, that he eventually formed a new-wave band called Neon Vomit; we know he biked around new towns to find "youth culture" and morphed into a poet who published other poets. His tastes, at times, seem to be in perpetual motion. But here, the author is more interested in the act of becoming a writer than in any set destination. As he eventually leaves town and begins shaping himself into a grown-up with a unique perspective, the book changes tone, spreads out into more effusive and dialogue-driven territory. And when Sampsell returns to a sparse style with the death of paterfamilias, we're reminded why we went for the ride after all—to witness this rather miraculous act of artistic self-creation.
"Sometimes if I scratch in the same spot," he writes in one of the few instances of potentially figurative language, "I can still feel a trace of pleasure." Sampsell's unsentimental education scratches at his past's spots, partly with pleasure, but mostly with the knowledge that his story alone is an adequate metaphor for itself, the life it describes, and its hard-won pleasures.
Daniel Nester is the author of How to Be Inappropriate (Soft Skull Press, 2009).