A CAVALCADE OF LESSER HORRORS
By: Peter Smith.
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 183 pages, $17.95.
Review: A life recalled beautifully, in elegant, well-crafted and witty language.
Events: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.; 11:15 a.m. Sept. 24, St. John's University, Collegeville.
MEMOIR REVIEW: "A Cavalcade of Lesser Horrors"
- Article by: JIM CARMIN
- Special to the Star Tribune
- September 19, 2011 - 10:38 AM
Peter Smith's wonderfully titled new book collects 33 brief essays in a touching memoir of growing up in Chicago, moving to the suburb of Libertyville to escape a polio epidemic, then onward to what he calls "ma belle Minnesota." After a long career in advertising (the "false God and acid bath," as he describes it), Smith became known for his touching commentaries on Minnesota Public Radio, many of which were collected in his first book, "A Porch Sofa Almanac."
Despite his professed misgivings of being a copywriter, it has served him well: With precise language he tells a good story with elegant descriptions, laced with the minor calamities of life, and woven with touches of wry humor. And it hasn't hurt that his life has had rich source material: He was raised in a family of nine kids (his parents were good Catholics, "recidivist reproducers") and his father was a nighttime police reporter for the Chicago Daily News.
Smith's father appears in many of these lovely vignettes. In "The Biscayne" we learn that he "seems to have been born with an unfortunate birthmark only car salesmen could read -- a birthmark that evidently said, 'Please fleece me.'"
Smith admits, in "Lawnmower Repair," that he inherited his mechanical ineptitude from his dad who, when he couldn't get something to work, would take it completely apart and soak all the parts in a gasoline-filled coffee can, with expected unspectacular results.
Iconic people outside Smith's family are also observed with élan. "Leroy" was "lord of the soda fountain," at the local drugstore where Smith first was a customer, later an employee. Leroy stood "over there in his corner, looking out over his empire, one hand cupping his Kool, the other slid into the side pocket of his clerk's jacket. It was a pose worthy of a Fitzgerald dust jacket." As a teenager, Smith ridiculed Leroy, but later he realized that Leroy was the first adult he had known "who had completely accepted his station in life."
And all of us raised in the Midwest remember the mysterious, handsome young man in "The Man on the Raft," the man who turned everyone's heads at the lake, where the girls "spread their towels and lay in the sun, smelling of cocoa butter and baby oil, listening to top 40 songs on a transistor radio."
Like so many young men of his era, Smith's entry into adulthood was abruptly interrupted when he was drafted and sent to Vietnam, but fortunately for him he spent most of the war working in a motor pool. He returned home to his first typewriter, which "had the temperament of a punch-drunk boxer hanging around the gym looking for work as a sparring partner," and soon discovered the joys of writing. And for those of us who are fortunate now to read Peter Smith's sumptuous and delightful prose, we are pleased that he did.
Jim Carmin is a writer in Portland, Ore., and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
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