David Tromblay wrote his harrowing new memoir, "As You Were," in second person, and you have to wonder if he did so out of emotional self-protection. His childhood in Duluth was defined by abuse, at the hands of his father, who was brain-damaged, and his grandmother, who administered beatings seemingly out of instinct. He eventually fled to the armed services, including a tour at a detention facility in Iraq, but nothing he endured in uniform comes off as bad as what he survived while growing up.
By addressing himself as "you," Tromblay steps outside himself, on the page anyway, and creates at least a bit of objectivity. "You're not special," he writes, addressing himself, and you get the feeling this message was transmitted to him frequently, verbally and physically. There's a lot of pain in these pages, and it's usually conveyed in a matter-of-fact tone.
Tromblay is Native American, but he interrogates his own identity. "Dad put a trailer on a piece of leased land somewhere on the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation," he writes, "but he isn't enrolled. He doesn't have the pedigree for that."
Tromblay, who earned an MFA at the Institute of American Indian Arts, shows a wry sense of humor about his roots: "Goats and horses are kept out back behind the trailer," he writes. "Goats for their milk, and horses — because it's what Indians do, right? They kill deer with a bow and arrow and ride horses." ("You are bad at being Indian," Tromblay writes at one point. "You have the blood, but not the culture.")
"As You Were" flows on a stream of consciousness, between childhood and adulthood, from the image of the author with a gun in his mouth back to the past experiences that would make him want to pull the trigger. Again, the dark humor emerges. Tromblay tells a military psychiatrist he wouldn't hurt himself because he has kids.
" 'What if you didn't have your kids?' she asks. 'What would stop you from hurting yourself then?' 'The safety,' you say in a measured whisper."
"As You Were" isn't a linear read, and its rhythm takes some getting used to. There's no arc of redemption, nothing even close to a happily-ever-after. If you seek such qualities, look elsewhere.
What it does have is raw truth, and the kind of courage that comes with survival. Some books you read with a sense of wonder that the author survived to write them. Some books, by their very existence, suggest that writing can save your life. This is one of those books.
"Trying to tell this story," Tromblay writes, "is like when someone asks why a marriage didn't work, and the explanation falls short, and the person asking the question fails to realize the stuff that they're hearing is only the parts of the story the other person is willing to breathe life back into." In this instance, those parts are enough; the breath, strong.
Chris Vognar is a Houston-based writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.
As You Were
By: David Tromblay.
Publisher: Dzanc Books, 238 pages, $16.95.