A Common Pornography: Memoir Done Right

03/31/2010 2:30 AM |

A Common Pornography
By Kevin Sampsell
Harper Perennial

In A Common Pornography, Kevin Sampsell presents his life story as a series of vignettes, some previously published, pulled together and fleshed out after his father’s death in 2008. After the funeral, Sampsell’s mother explained to him (at a Sonic drive-in) the details of her previous marriages and the extent of his father’s abusive behavior toward her and toward her older children, Sampsell’s half-siblings. Sampsell processes this information along with his remembrances of being raised in a mixed-race household, scattered part-time work, failed relationships, New Wave music, and his efforts to become a writer.

Sampsell’s introductory notes establish his posture toward the events he recounts—a position that includes, in particular, a view of his father’s familial transgressions (and, ultimately, Sampsell’s own) as crucial elements to a complete story, but not events that ought to be mythologized. In this way, Sampsell prepares the reader for the direct, unembellished tone of the memoir and makes it clear that he’s not looking to capitalize on his family’s hard luck; he places himself on the same moral plane as the other people about whom he writes.

While Sampsell’s story doesn’t fit the common mold of autobiography primarily due to its fragmented structure, neither does it partake in the indulgences that sometimes accompany lyric memoir. Sampsell presents his history matter-of-factly, keeping wandering reflection and suspect nostalgia to a minimum. The result is an impressively absorbing and difficult, yet not emotionally manipulative, collection of remembrances—one which seems true to the real functioning of memory.

Sampsell builds analysis delicately into his memories rather than roughly extracting it. In describing a visit back to his hometown during which he and his girlfriend stop to look at his childhood house, Sampsell notices a woman in his old yard and writes, “I wanted to say, ‘I used to live here and I’m writing a book about it.’ But I would have felt like a dork. Instead I just made it blatant that we were talking about their house by pointing to the window where my bedroom used to be.”