In a media climate with an epidemic-level glut of books, TV shows, magazines, blogs and Twitter feeds devoted to homeownership, Matthew Batt's new memoir stands out for its allusive, amusing depiction of house-hunting hell.
A few years ago, Batt and his wife, Jenae, were looking for a place in Utah. They "began driving around and around," he recalls, their car gradually morphing into a receptacle for "website printouts, pamphlets, for-sale-by-owner flyers, burrito wrappers, cigarette papers, ashes. Soon we felt like those dizzy, singed birds in that Yeats poem who can't find their way home and accidentally trigger the apocalypse."
"Things fall apart," William Butler Yeats writes in "The Second Coming," and, like the poem invoked by Batt, "Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House Into Our Home Sweet Home" features no shortage of grim tidings. The author, now an English professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, writes about the deaths of loved ones, his mother's cancer scare and his grandfather's questionable relationship with a younger woman who might be after his money.
These events, though not the book's nominal focus, are the best parts of Batt's narrative. To take one example, the chapter in which Batt's grandfather drops a non sequitur about his sex life captures just how trying it can be to learn uncomfortable truths from a relative who's in a confessional mood.
Mostly, though, "Sugarhouse" -- named for Sugar House, the Salt Lake City neighborhood in which Batt and his wife settled -- deals with the purchase and renovation of a house that, according to its ex-owner, was once inhabited by a mom who did some drug-dealing. "I barely understand the difference between a Phillips and a flathead screwdriver," Batt writes, but he and Jenae learned to love (or at least survive) installing slate tiles and picking the proper countertop surface.
"There is something essentially American about fixing up a house," he writes. "Something perfectly democratic about doing it yourself. About not having a single damned idea whatsoever about the difference between a router and a planer but going right on and doing it anyway."
Batt's book is flawlessly paced, and the author is generally a likable presence, striking a balance between sincerity and jocularity. But sometimes he tries too hard to get a laugh, playing the same off-key notes over and over again. At various points, for instance, he compares the smells coming from his not-yet-renovated house to "the backed-up septic system of an Indian restaurant," "week-old Thai food" and "the garam masala doggie bag I once forgot in the trunk of Jenae's car for a couple of days."
His dismal one-liners about ethnic food suggest that Batt is channeling a hack comedian on open mike night. He's much better off with Yeats.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York.