NONFICTION: The author’s second memoir recalls his own coming out, and his brother’s death from AIDS.
In 2006, Clifford Chase published his debut novel, “Winkie,” which remains one of the more curious works of fiction inspired by the past decade’s war on terror. Its setup is absurd — the titular hero is a teddy bear arrested under suspicion of nefarious acts — but Chase shaped it into a clever and thoughtful allegory, making the bear a symbol for broader insecurities about love, death, country and identity.
“The Tooth Fairy,” Chase’s second memoir, is a more intimate exploration of some of Winkie’s themes, and although its style is different, it’s an equally fascinating book. Writing mostly in brief, aphoristic sentences, Chase recalls his coming out, which was long and agonizingly suffused with denial; his older brother’s death from AIDS; his struggle to care for his aging parents, and his efforts to balance a relationship with his writing career.
All of these experiences spark some amount of regret, but Chase writes about them with a cool, flat affect, filling the pages with mostly one-sentence paragraphs that ensure he doesn’t devolve into complaints or pleas for the reader’s sympathy. “John doesn’t believe in the afterlife, but I do,” goes one Twitter-ready sentence. “In the darkness in my room, roach-legs lightly skittering across the walls,” goes another.
This memoir-as-cubist-portrait isn’t as alienating as it might initially seem. Indeed, the strength of this strategy is that Chase capably combines these scraps of observation into a clear story while resisting the urge to rationalize and overexplain. In the process, he avoids writing the tidy tales of self-redemption that so many memoirs are. “[L]et the white space between these sentences stand for what couldn’t be seen then; or what can’t be remembered now; or my open fate,” he writes. Mentions of that “white space” are a recurring motif in the book, a way to acknowledge the flimsiness of memory, or the way it shifts emphasis over time.
Sometimes Chase’s approach is artful and dotted with bits of wry humor, as when he weaves his college-age obliviousness about his sexual identity with snippets of observations about a B-52s album. Generally, though, the tone is moodier. In the closing chapter, Chase finally confronts the diaries his brother wrote while he was dying. (Chase wrote his first memoir, 1999’s “The Hurry-Up Song,” without daring to open them.)
The diaries spark plenty of confusion in Chase, who then dives deep into what’s said within his brother’s omissions, his own white spaces. In working up the nerve to read and investigate, Chase recognizes that “AIDS becomes simply one aspect of his life.” So many memoirs strive to simplify lives. The chief virtue of “The Tooth Fairy” is how well it complicates them.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Phoenix.