MARCH 19, 2019
“FOND” IS THE WORD that kept coming to mind while reading Frederic Tuten’s My Young Life, his memoir about the years he spent yearning to be a painter or a writer and mostly not succeeding. Covering 1944–1964, the book is set in the Bronx, where Tuten was born and raised, and then the bohemia of Greenwich Village, with side trips to Mexico City (where he went after dropping out of high school) and Syracuse (the setting for a couple of miserable, gray grad school years). I don’t wish “fond” to give the impression that the book is old-fashioned or sentimental but to suggest its beautiful sense of balance. There are no villains in this book, no one recalled unkindly — not the women who broke Tuten’s heart, not even the Southern father who abandoned the 11-year-old Tuten and his Italian mother, leaving them to fend for themselves in the small Bronx apartment they shared with the writer’s maternal grandmother. The perspicacious generosity that colors the entire book comes through in Tuten’s last encounter, after many years of separation, with his father, Rex, as he lay dying in a Jersey City hospital. The only faithfulness the dying Rex can claim is to the unfiltered Camels he still smokes. After meeting Rex, Tuten’s girlfriend at the time tells him, “You’re sexy, but your father! I understand exactly what your mother felt. I would have gone off with him in a second.” Tuten admits that hurt. The hurt doesn’t keep him from including it, though. Tuten doesn’t even blame his girl for seeing the charisma that, he has to admit, the old bastard still has.
Years after this simultaneous reunion and farewell, in his novel Tallien, Tuten had the wry generosity to imagine for his father a death where his dying wishes have been indulged: “In the receding lines of infinity, little white paper cartons of Chinese food and gnawed spare ribs sprinkled along an avenue leading toward a sky where hopes take refuge.”
That memory is the first of the book’s many extended footnotes, most of them obits for the characters we encounter: Tuten’s City College instructor, the art historian Norman Schlenoff; the ex-con, artist, and writer John Resko; another City College instructor, Leonard Ehrlich, whose acclaimed 1932 debut novel God’s Angry Man was never followed by another; Jack Micheline, a Greenwich Village character whose mission in life seems to exist as one of those people who adds color to whatever scene they are in; Diana Harris, a top-flight call girl for the cafe society of ’50s New York, who becomes Tuten’s lover during his sojourn in Mexico City and is dead of an overdose at 30; and Tuten’s own mother, in and out of work, whom he helps as he can, dutifully visits, feels guilty about not seeing more often, and who dies, in dementia and poverty while Tuten is far away, finally having made it to his dream, Paris. Tuten’s ex-wife attends the funeral and finds herself the only one there, not even a priest having shown up.
These footnotes comprise some of the finest writing in the book, sudden chill winds of mortality that blow through this account of a young man trying to find his footing as an artist, and as an adult. They are often marked by regret, by Tuten’s guilt that he did not keep in contact, that he somehow could have done better by them. Tuten even ends the book on one of these footnotes, a summing up of his affair with an older and more sophisticated Italian woman whom he moves in with and then, one day, marries in Brooklyn. These are the book’s final lines: “We had gone to Brooklyn by subway and returned to Manhattan the same unceremonious way. We stayed happy for several years.”
There is, in those lines, the same mixture you find in the image of cartons of Chinese take-out lining his father’s path to eternity. It’s a combination of the quotidian and sudden flights of euphoria that make the quotidian bearable and which, as that “for several years” attests, eventually depart.
I mean no disrespect to Tuten to say, in outline as least, we have read memoirs like this before, books of bright kids with aesthetic leanings who dream of breaking away from their prosaic family lives, preferably to Europe, and find an acceptable, attainable boho existence in Greenwich Village as it was in the ’50s and ’60s. For me, the best versions of the story have been female, the ones told by Joyce Johnson in Minor Characters and Suze Rotolo in A Freewheelin’ Time. (No ideology implied, just this reader’s taste.) Tuten’s, dry and tender, brings something I don’t think I’ve ever encountered in any other young man’s artistic coming-of-age.
It’s not just that Tuten doesn’t indulge in self-pity, doesn’t invest his youthful failures with any more weight than they deserve. It’s that, for a memoir, there is something almost self-effacing in his approach. He’s too interested in the people he encounters to become self-absorbed. He may be flattered that the artistic and intellectual people he meets are interested in him, that they make time for him in their lives, lives like the one Tuten dreams of having. But before long, Tuten will begin to concentrate on those people and push his own travails gently to the side.
This extends to his account of his sexual life too. Yes, he writes about being horny and frustrated. He couldn’t have been that frustrated, though. Tuten seems to have done very well with the kind of women — belly dancers or the mysterious intellectual beauties who exist among every group of student writers — he didn’t believe he had a chance with. Sure, he writes about his lust for each, remembers their physical attributes (Tuten is a breast man). But more than anything what comes across is his fascination with these women, his besottedness. You know each affair is destined to come to an end, not because the woman is duplicitous or cruel but because Tuten’s naïveté is the kind that carries the seed of its own disappointment.
Reading My Young Life, you’re aware of just how easily this might have been a dilettante’s memoir, the story of someone who stayed on the outside of the worlds he wished to join because he never got it together enough to settle down to work. Tuten even works for some years at that job that exerts a siren song on those who are Destined for Better Things: bookstore clerk. Tuten doesn’t spare either his pretensions or his laziness in discussing his false starts as both artist and writer. When you read the poet Tracy K. Smith’s recent memoir Ordinary Light (for my money, close to an American classic) there’s no doubt in your mind that the solitary bookish child you are reading about is on the path to being a writer — even in her descriptions of herself as a child, there is a natural gravity and seriousness. With Tuten, you realize just how tempting it was for him to waste time, to fool himself that this time, the approach he was taking was the one that would turn him into the writer he wanted to be.
Often that kind of honesty results in the memoirist making the reader embarrassed for him, making us feel we are in his skin living through each humiliation. Tuten’s memoir has none of that. And that too seems a mark of its balance, the maturity of someone who has learned to stop obsessing over youthful foibles — and this may explain the book’s generosity — which is also the mark of someone no longer interested in settling scores.
The bookstores and publisher catalogs are more glutted with memoir than at any time I can remember. And since so many of those books are less memoirs than therapy sessions, at a certain point the weary reader might begin toying with the idea of charging the author a couple hundred dollars for every 50 minutes spent paying attention to somebody else’s problems. There were always a few first-class narcissists around, like Anaïs Nin filling volume after volume with each deathless pensée; now there are writers who seem to have no body of work apart from memoir. It’s necessary to remind students in creative nonfiction classes that the discipline does not automatically mean memoir.
Part of what it is, I think, that wears people out with memoirs is the narcissism that is particular to victimhood, the chance to show off just how bad you’ve had it and claim yourself as deserving of the now completely devalued mantle of survivor.
The version of himself that Frederic Tuten presents in My Young Life has simply too much sense and too much taste to ever think of himself as a survivor (a word that should, as it once was, be reserved for those who have come through war, genocide, and other earth-changing events). Tuten is now 82. Maybe it takes that long to be able to achieve what distinguishes this book, the humor that isn’t derisive, the distance that doesn’t preclude summoning up reserves of feeling for the people who are recalled. In that scene with Tuten’s dying father, father tells son: “I had a good life.” Coming from a very different place, Tuten seems to be saying the same, and My Young Life makes that feel like the sentiment of an honest man.