When middle-aged avowed Manhattanite George Hodgman returned to his hometown of Paris, Mo., he found himself at war with his elderly mother, Betty, over her sandals.
"This was the beginning of the War of Shoes. Since man first staggered across the earth, wars have been waged over God, land, money, freedom. This will be a battle for control over one small territory that remains my mother's own: her feet, a dry landscape below the region of swollen ankle, a terrain coursed by rivers of fragrant lotion. … On this field of battle I have vowed to lay my body down. Withdrawing to my bed, I planned future maneuvers."
He had not intended to go home for a lengthy period of time in order to care for his aged parent — how many of us do? — but his extended stay resulted in this intimate, heartfelt portrait of a mother and son, each at the crossroads of life. Hodgman is struggling with his ever-shifting career as an editor and writer, while his mother has lost much of her independence.
So many memoirs about caring for an ailing relative can slip into mawkish territory, but Hodgman steers clear of sentimentality. "Bettyville" is not just a memoir about a son caring for his mother; it is a book that explores the difficult terrain of long-held roles within a family, the changing landscape of a small Southern town with a long memory and the strain of growing up gay under the disapproving eye of otherwise loving parents.
Hodgman's sharp wit carries the book ever forward; his self-deprecating humor (especially about his struggle to stay sober in the face of stress) and jokes about his expanding waistline are added with the comic timing of a seasoned satirist. But he is also honest about how he has used, and still uses, humor to stay afloat. At one point, a publisher, after reading a draft of a book Hodgman was working on, called Hodgman's work "internal" — and not in a complimentary way.
"The thing about being a watcher is this," writes Hodgman. "You are never really a part of things, especially if the person you must watch is yourself, always, just to make sure no one ever really sees you."
It is this "watcher" trait that makes Hodgman such a successful memoirist: He watches Betty, not always with the eye of a son, but as an observer. And he does the same with himself.
Meganne Fabrega is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.