It is a gamble to compose an entire book in the voice of a child. When I opened Joanna Howard’s “Rerun Era” I was prepared for a gratingly arch put-on but was quickly won over by this tour de force of a memoir. It works because in every sentence, the high, confused voice of a 5-year-old girl is doubled by the “woman of a certain age” who understands, with increasing stridency and bitterness, what the girl lived.
Childhood was spent in flat, rural, boring Miami, Okla. Howard’s father was a long-haul trucker, her mother a critical, dissatisfied woman who subscribed to Ms. Magazine. So the girl, who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, was raised largely by TV shows. There were Davy Crockett, Andy Griffith, “Green Acres,” “Hee-Haw” and “Gunsmoke.” There was a singer named Jerry Reed, here conjured back by the double voice. “His songs are genuinely funny, and possibly yes, inane, but I am five and thank god something is inane.”
“All my adventures are there, inside the TV.” The grown woman dissects what the child soaks in. In a “Hee-Haw” skit the barber tells a story and “whatever the lucky thing is, turns out to be not so lucky after all, and ends up tragic again, and it loops. This cycle could go on forever, an elegant, infinite loop. Everything good is bad, and everything bad is good.”
These programs, and the country fairs that purport to re-create the Old West and American small-town life, full of prosperity and jokiness, are frauds, a kind of propaganda, she later understands, whether consciously designed as such or not.
In the child’s real life, incomprehensible things keep happening, some very bad. She is sent to kindergarten, where she suffers interminable nap time and is frightened by the giant shapes on the bulletin board. “They are the alphabet, but they are also individual colorful monsters, with claws and fur and sometimes horns.” Her grandfather and uncle are “suddenly dead.” The grown-up knows that they died by suicide.
In the real small-town Oklahoma, the mines are closing, the poor part of town floods every spring, and the runoff from the defunct tire factory leaves toxic waste. Her father hunts squirrels for food. She also knows that her father had a mistress and then suffered a stroke. Her much older brother runs away. The child is suddenly sent to live with grandmother and then her mother’s friend, and why is Mom not here?
The immediacy of the girl’s bewilderment comes through in that painful voice of not knowing. People come and go and never explain.
What also infuriates the grown woman is that she can’t trust her memories. Unlike the reruns she watched, they don’t always run in the same order and yet she keeps replaying them, hoping for clarity. “I just can’t remember what happens when.” Unlike other facts, we can’t look them up, nor trust others to tell us the truth, whatever version of it they remember and choose to tell.
Rerun Era By: Joanna Howard. Publisher: McSweeney’s, 176 pages, $24.
Brigitte Frase, a past winner of the Nona Balakian citation for excellence in reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle, lives in Minneapolis.