by Kevin Sampsell
Everyone has stories, brief anecdotes relating to our history. Our memories are at once humorous and heartbreaking, some retold again and again, some kept private forever. In A Common Pornography, Kevin Sampsell gathers his stories and assembles them into an atypical memoir, and the results are both intimate and intriguing.
Growing up in Kennewick, Washington seemed ideal enough, though “this was before I even saw anywhere else.” Kennewick, along with Pasco and Richland, is part the Tri-Cities, a strange little hub of Northwest desert and chain stores. He has two older half-brothers and a half-sister from his mother’s previous relationships, one brother from her marriage to his father, and another half-brother who came from his mother’s brief relationship with a Ugandan man when she and Sampsell’s father were estranged. It is not until he is a teenager that he gives any thought to his brother being half-black.
When his father dies in 2008, he discovers an entire family history kept quiet over the years — details about his siblings, his mother’s past, and his father’s abuse of his sister that affected her for the rest of her life. The way he presents this information is never from a place of overt shock — though some of it had to be — but rather matter of fact. It’s clear how he feels without having it spelled out, which suits the brief nature of each chapter. Some chapters are barely more than a paragraph long.
Other parts of the book move away from his family and detail his path to adulthood, stories of friends, girls and longing. As a kid, he starts amassing a collection of dirty magazines and hides them above the drop ceiling tiles of his room. Eventually, he grows paranoid about their weight and culls the mass to only choice images.
I could sleep at night now, know that fifty pounds of dirty magazines weren’t going to break through the tiles above me and pummel my face.
With concerns for weight again, the collection moves to an old suitcase. His awkwardness mixed with irrepressible teenage lust leads him to losing his virginity to one of the Tri-Cities prostitutes, an experience that of course disappoints and does nothing to make him feel like less of a virgin. It is only after that night that he begins to have better luck with regular girls.
He and his New Wave friends shop for records at a place called the Licorice Donut — probably one of the better names for a record store I’ve ever heard — and “since we were too young to go to bars,” they hang out at the diner Shari’s after dancing at an all-ages club called the Palace.
Maybe dressing up and dancing to my favorite songs was as close as I would come to being a pop star, so I went for it, and I felt euphoric afterward. I was starting to really feel myself physically in the world, self-conscious in a good way. Living in the moments of the music.
Since I grew up in Great Falls, Montana (a place that gets a brief mention in regards to his sister’s father), I know just the feeling. Being a teenager that’s not so mainstream in an only semi-urban area surrounded by farmland, you have to find your own entertainment. For us, it was all-ages punk shows (even for the not-so-punk kids) and the diners Cattin’s or Tracy’s. Maybe the R&R, if we were in the mood for something different. During those years, nothing was quite as good as the conversations and relationships formed on a Friday night. And living in a place with several Shari’s now, I can confirm that the underage punk and goth kids are still there, dumping creamer pots into their endless cups of coffee.
It’s strange, I’ve lived in the Spokane area for seven years and barely saw it mentioned in anything I watched or read, and now it seems like I’m cramming in all its literary moments right before I leave. It’s not purposeful — I wanted to read this book before I realized it had anything to do with this neck of the woods, but now his upcoming appearance at the Get Lit! festival makes even more sense. In the early 90s, Sampsell moved to Spokane to attend broadcast school and also did some performances at open mics, either poetry, performance art or a few one offs with some bands. And though he knows better, he can’t help but see a few women at once. “I was taking advantage of anyone I thought was as weak as me.”
Ingrid – “a sad and mysterious redhead. The only social thing we did was go to her friend Molly’s apartment and drink beer.”
Lisa – “I knew she was going out with a really dumb bass player and I tried to convince her that writers made better boyfriends.”
Laura – “The only real poet I met in Spokane. She wore stretch pants with skeletons on them and said her favorite bands were T. Rex and the Stones Roses.”
Sarah – “We became friends and confessed guilty pleasures to each other (she liked Seal, I liked Suzanne Vega), her demeanor was never flirty and she became the subject of much unrequited lust poetry.”
Sampsell’s descriptions of the people he encounters are perfect in their spareness. He has a way of making a person clear within two sentences that might take other writers two paragraphs. I also appreciate his candor when it comes to more private moments, moments most people would hesitate to share at all, but still had an effect on their lives. From near-wordless encounters with other men to nights spent alone, he details his search for affection in a very real, honest way.
Like many one-time residents of Spokane, Sampsell now lives in Portland. After the birth of his son, “I knew right away that I was going to do a better job than my own father,” he says. He works at one of the greatest bookstores in the world, Powell’s, a runs his own small press called Future Tense. It publishes chapbooks, poetry and short story collections and some paperback novels. I plan on visiting the small press area of Powell’s when I’m in Portland next month. When you’re in a bookstore of such inclusive scale, it’s probably best to seek out what wouldn’t be at your local Barnes and Noble.
I enjoyed this book immensely and will be seeking out Kevin Sampsell’s other work. This Saturday, he will be participating in two different free talks as part of the Get Lit! festival. The first, “Memories of a Father” is at Hotel Lusso from 11am-noon, where he will speak along with authors Diana Joseph and Maria Spagna. At 1:15, also at Hotel Lusso, he will be part of a panel entitled “How Publishing is Changing.” Throughout the day, Future Tense will be part of the Small Press Fair located within the hotel. For more information on the festival, take a peek at www.ewu.edu/getlit.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.
This review was also published on Pajiba itself on April 22, 2010.