“I had to resort to the most useful and dangerous lesson a damaged child ever learns—how to lie to himself. I had to make up a reason, an excuse, because there is nowhere to hide in a small house. I had to make room within the rooms, a safe place midway in the mind, behind seeing and before knowing. There I could resurrect memories and bury secrets.”
Charles Blow was born into a big, complicated Southern family in rural Louisiana. When his mother had finally had enough of his father’s philandering, she left him for good, taking four children with her, determined to somehow make do on school teacher’s meager salary. But though his mother was as tough as the brass knuckles she kept in her glove box, she could not protect her son from sexual abuse at the hands of those who sensed difference and vulnerability in him—first a cousin, and then an uncle. The abuse caused him to question and then supress the part of himself that seemed to be attracted to men, a situation made all the more complicated by the fact that he definitely loved women. Taking refuge in books, and drawing solace from proving his academic and athletic prowess, he won admittance to a nearby college. Desperately seeking acceptance, he became determined to pledge a fraternity, submitting himself to shockingly brutal hazing rituals in his quest to belong. Only when, as president of the fraternity, he was called on to perpetuate the legacy of abuse, did he realize what he had sacrificed to prove his masculinity.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones begins with a powerful hook. One night while Blow was away at college, the phone rang. His mother’s voice informed him that someone wanted to speak to him, and then his cousin’s voice spoke down the line, greeting him across the years as if nothing had ever happened. Grabbing the gun his mother had insisted he have, Blow began a rage-fueled drive towards her home, where he planned to kill the man who had sexually assaulted him as a child. This hook hovers over the narrative as Blow goes back in time to recount his family history, introducing too many people in short order, and detail his childhood in Northern Louisiana. It is a childhood strained by poverty, pocked by violence, and studded with abuse at the hands of male relatives. It is the commonality of violence, and the constant necessity of proving his manliness that leads him down a path that could have sent him to prison rather than a successful journalism career.
Blow is somewhat over fond of adjectives and description, and prone to using unusual descriptors and then repeating them almost immediately, perhaps for emphasis. Often, these detailed descriptions are bestowed upon insignificant figures who factor little in his story. But this minor quirk aside, Blow has a striking way with words. One of the most haunting passages describes his abusers, and how they coloured his view of life: “It now seemed to me that the world was full of boys like Chester and men like Paul—the kind whose sense of right broke down in the dark and still of the night—the ones who looked at me and saw a chance, not a child.” With this passage, and others like it, he powerfully evokes the ravages of poverty and abuse, and the pain of living life at the intersection of two of his community’s most charged epithets—“nigger,” which is hurled at him by passing white neighbours and classmates, and “punk” (the regional equivalent of faggot), which is wielded by his own family and peers in an effort to police his sexual expression.
It takes almost the entire book to return to the crucial moment Blow describes in the opening lines. Fire Shut Up in My Bones recounts Blow’s childhood through his college years, but only addresses the rest of his adulthood very briefly, just enough to see how he was able to make some sense of the pain and hurt and confusion that defined his early life, and profoundly affected his adulthood. Though he spends little time on his later life, Blow manages to bring it all together with only a few pages, even if some curiosity about more recent years will inevitably linger.
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