All the dots in the background are the same colour (RGB 250, 219, 172). (Credit: David Novick/The University of Texas, via Twitter, @qikipedia)
Little Follies: The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences and Observations of Peter Leroy (So Far) (1995), Eric Kraft
What do you remember from your childhood? How far back do your memories go? More importantly, how much can you trust your memories?
According to Peter Leroy, Kraft’s alter-ego in this first of several volumes in a long-running series, our memories are constructed and reconstructed, both consciously and unconsciously, over time, evolving as we tell the stories of our lives to ourselves and others. In other words, memory is like the optical illusion above: events masked and tinted by layers of intention and interpretation that we’re rarely aware of. In other words, we can’t trust our memories. All the same, they’re quite enjoyable.
Peter Leroy narrates Kraft’s stories. Naming the narrator is nothing new in literature: Dickens’ David Copperfield, Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, Martell’s Pi — we come to know these narrators well, learning to trust some and distrust others.¹ But Leroy is the first narrator I know of who tells us, in a preface to each novel/novella, exactly how he has tweaked his memories for literary purposes.
In the Preface to Take the Long Way Home, for instance, he writes, “Allow me a little of your time to explain what the memory was, how I changed its essentials, and why I altered them.” What follows are three pages summarizing economic developments in Peter’s home town and how these affected his love life as an eight-year-old. Then we jump into the novella, where Peter has taken the opportunity to improve the story. “Surely,” he explains, “this is one of the motives behind any fiction: the desire to correct the errors of the past.”
In the Preface to My Mother Takes a Tumble, Peter refers to “fabricated details”, the minor tweaks in characters’ background stories that he has made, to add interest and strengthen the plot. And then, on the first page, we’re reading about the day he comes home, as a newborn, from the hospital, and we’re with him watching the event unspool. The car, his parents and grandparents, the neighbor (who might or might not be Peter’s biological father), the cake his grandmother had made with its icing pulled into peaks.
We already know that Peter has invented a girlfriend for Dudley Beaker (his neighbor and possible father) and a different job for his grandfather, but now we have to wonder how much of the rest is invention.
But let me not mislead you. I don’t want to be the unreliable reviewer. In spite of their philosophical explorations of memory and creativity, these novels are the funniest things I’ve ever read. It may not be possible to capture Kraft’s humor in a review, but I’m going to try for at least a hint. Little Follies comprises nine novellas (each about 50 pages in length), that take Peter from birth to his early teens. We meet his family, neighbors, school friends (one of whom, Raskol, Peter admits to inventing for authorial purposes), teachers, local business owners and other denizens of Babbington, Long Island, a town through which the Bolotomy River runs to the Bolotomy Bay. Local industry is clam- and clamshell-based (chicken farming runs a close second).
Look! Look! See the clam? See the clam smile? This is a happy clam.
In one of the novellas, The Fox and the Clam, Peter reproduces a story (“The Happy Clam”) from an early school reader, complete with illustrations, in which a fox, rowing across the bay, drowns (in a nod to the myth of Narcissus and Aesop’s fable about the dog carrying a bone)². I can’t provide the illustrations, but here’s the text:
Look! See the clam? – The clam is happy? – See the fox? The fox is not happy – The fox is sad. The fox is very sad. – The clam is not sad. The clam is happy.
Oh! Oh! – Did the fox see the clam? – Yes! Yes! The fox did see the clam. – The clam is happy. The fox is not happy. – The fox is angry. The fox is angry with the clam. – What will the fox do?
Oh! Oh! – See the fox fall? Ho! Ho! Ho! – The fox cannot get the clam! – The clam is happy. The fox is not happy.
The fox is not happy OR sad now.³ – The clam is still happy. – Look at that happy clam!
Things to think about . . . 1. Why was the fox sad at the beginning? 2. Why was the clam happy? 3. Why was the fox angry with the clam? 4. Why was the fox not sad at the end? 5. Will the clam stay happy?
The correct answer to Question 5 is: No, the clam won’t stay happy, because any minute now a clammy (the Babbington term for a person harvesting clams) will come by, scoop up that clam and take it straight home to toss into that night’s chowder.
Now I’ll add a little context. Peter’s in the first grade and learning how to read. He first understands reading to be a form of invention. Illustrations provide some clues to how a story might go — a bit like sign posts — and the “reader” ad libs as much (or as little) as she likes. So the version of “The Happy Clam” reproduced above is one of many in the novella: the teacher’s, Peter’s, Matthew Barber’s (Matthew is another student, initially Peter’s nemesis but eventually his friend), Peter’s mother’s, and so on. In each version, the happy clam represents optimism (Peter’s take on life), and the fox is pessimism (Matthew Barber). Here Matthew responds to those five questions:
The fox was sad at the beginning … because there was no reason for him to be happy. The clam was happy because he was a jerk. The fox was angry with the clam because he couldn’t stand to be around jerks. The fox wasn’t sad at the end because he was dead. And the clam will stay happy as long as he’s a jerk…. But if he ever wises up, he’ll be as miserable as the fox.
Remember, these are first graders.
Clams feature heavily in these stories. In The Static of the Spheres, Peter refers to the clam as a “wily bivalve”. In Do Clams Bite?, he’s reluctant to follow other clammies’ habit of stuffing harvested clams down the front of their swim trunks instead of into a difficult-to-carry basket. Mr. Beaker is a writer for the Babbington Clam Council, providing advice to mothers for what to do with all the leftover clamshells — “The answer to family boredom!”, according to one flyer. Every spring, Babbingtonians resurface their driveways with crushed clamshells by driving over them with their Studebakers (sold to them by Peter’s grandfather). And, in The Young Tars, local restauranteur Porky White discovers a way to make clams taste like chicken.
Eric Kraft as Peter Leroy writes from an adult’s viewpoint, with a mature understanding of what memoir entails: the risk of “backward rambles”. Even fictional memoir presents dangers. The memoirist might discover that those multi-hued dots are, in fact, all the exact same color.
But there are also some benefits. Even though the memoirist might get lost or make unpleasant discoveries, in Peter’s case at least, he is able to right a few wrongs and level the playing field. In the real world he may lose both his girlfriend and the school-naming contest, but in Take the Long Way Home he can give himself the school-naming prize (but not the girlfriend — that would have involved too much tweaking of history and the chicken/clam social divide).
There are nearly 20 Peter Leroy books, and I’m reading them all over the next few months. So, I will end this the same way Peter Leroy ends each of his books: (TO BE CONTINUED).
¹Wayne Booth introduced the term “unreliable narrator” in 1961’s The Rhetoric of Fiction. The Guardian has a list of top-10 unreliable narrators here.
²Other oblique literary references include The Odyssey, Joyce’s Ulysses, Lolita, Proust. Each novel includes one or more epigrams, by authors ranging from Susan Orlean to James Baldwin to Andre Gide.
³The illustration shows the fox, from the clam’s point of view, face down in the water and quite clearly dead. Any Babbington child will know what death-by-drowning looks like.