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A Common Pornography: A Memoirby Kevin Sampsell
I loved Kevin Sampsell's A Common Pornography. Though by "loved" I mean "was impressed and cringed a lot." This collection of short "memory experiments" runs the gamut from hilarious to heartbreaking, and Sampsell has an incredible knack for illuminating teen angst and family dysfunction with his vivid prose and off-kilter sensibility. Very weird and very good.
Composed of brief, chronological accounts, A Common Pornography is Kevin Sampsell's unabashedly frank memoir. Recounting the formative incidents of his youth, Sampsell writes with great courage about family drama, sexual exploration, and the inevitable uncertainties of adolescence. Written without pathos, sentimentalism, or apology, Sampsell never resorts to the banal, woe-is-me affectations that have come to mark so many autobiographical works of late. Funny, tragic, touching, and often unbelievable, A Common Pornography is the true tale of one man's precarious and often arduous journey into adulthood.
"Sampsell's talent for observing the ordinary....is perhaps best displayed in chronicling the cringing inelegance of adolescent sexuality: the embarrassing hookups, the acne-cream-flavored kisses, the obsession with pornography, and the preoccupation with discarding one's virginity." Benjamin Moser, Harper's Magazine (Read the entire Harper's review)
Synopses & Reviews
In 2008, Kevin Sampsell's estranged father died of an aneurysm. When he returned home to Kennewick, Washington, for the funeral, Kevin's mother revealed to him disturbing threads in their family history — stories of incest, madness, betrayal, and death. In A Common Pornography, he tells his family's unforgettable story — from his mother's first tumultuous marriages and his father's physical, pyschological, and sexual abuse of his half-sister to his own tales of first jobs, first bands, and first loves in the Pacific Northwest in the '70s and '80s.
One of Sampsell's previous books was written as a kind of "memory experiment," in which he recollected luminous details from his childhood in independently amusing chapters. Employing the same form of memoir in A Common Pornography, he intertwines the tragic with the everyday, the dysfunctional with the fun, lending the book its undeniable, unsensationalized reality. He captures the many shades and the whole of the Sampsell family — both its tragedy and its resiliency.
"A memoir in collage form, this frank but fragmented narrative chronicles the author's early life in the Pacific Northwest. Told in a series of small pieces, some less than a quarter of a page long, Sampsell follows a stream-of-consciousness series of memories centering loosely around a collection of family secrets unearthed after his father's funeral. Replicating the effects of memory, Sampsell's chronicle begins piecemeal and becomes more detailed as it goes, emphasizing the unfiltered honesty of the story and his efforts to tell it. Though it can be frustrating waiting for the pieces to add up, there's enough bathos, dysfunctional family antics and coming-of-age adventures-naked photoshoots, psychiatric hospitalizations, late-night donut shops and the tri-city New Wave scene-to keep readers turning pages. Sampsell's eye for detail and deadpan delivery envliven a dark personal history with bathos and a powerful desire for understanding." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Make no mistake: Sampsell can write like hell." Steve Almond
"Kevin Sampsell likes to experiment, and I like the way he experiments — with humor, with the grim, half-lost hours up till dawn, with the harsh wonders of sex. Here is a fresh and crafty voice, announcing its world to your reading pleasure." Barry Yourgrau, author of Haunted Traveller
"Kevin Sampsell's arousing, confrontational stories are a welcome addition to the new wave of American fiction." Ben Neihart, author of Burning Girl
"This is a heartbreaking and magnificent book....I am reminded of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. This is the kind of book where you want to thank the author for helping you feel less alone with being alive." Steve Almond, author of My Life in Heavy Metal
"[A] rather miraculous act of artistic self-creation...his story alone is an adequate metaphor for itself, the life it describes, and its hard-won pleasures." Harper's Magazine
"Its droll style and its archaeological attentiveness to the debris of American life — the remote controls, video recorders, tight ends, and one-hit wonders of yesteryear — combined with Sampsell's talent for observing the ordinary, infuse the most 'common' incidents of growing up with wit and meaning." Time Out Chicago
A searing memoir told in vignettes that captures the history of an American family, intertwining recollections of small-town youth with darker threads of family history and revealing how incest, madness, betrayal, and death can seem positively normal, from writer and publisher Kevin Sampsell.
Kevin Sampsell always thought he was part of a normal family growing up in the Pacific Northwest. He never wondered why his older siblings had different last names or why one of them was black. But when his estranged father passed away in 2008, his mother revealed to him some of the family's mysterious and unsettling history. A history of betrayal, madness, and incest.
A Common Pornography is a uniquely crafted, two-pronged memory experiment: a collection of sweet and funny snapshots from his childhood, and an unsensational portrait of a family in crisis. Sampsell blends the catastrophic with the mundane and the humorous with the horrific. From his mother's first tumultuous marriages and his father's shocking abuse of his half sister to Kevin's own memories of first jobs, first bands, and first loves, here is a searing, intensely honest memoir that exposes the many haunting shades of a family — both its tragedy and its resiliency.
In 2003 Kevin Sampsell authored a chapbook memoir of the same title. It was written as a kind of "memory experiment," in which he recollected luminous details from his childhood in independently amusing chapters. It functioned as an experiential catalogue of American youth in the 70s and 80s.
In 2008 Kevin′s estranged father died of an aneurysm. When he returned home to Kennewick, Washington for the funeral, Kevin′s mother revealed to him disturbing threads in their family history -- stories of incest, madness, betrayal, and death -- which retroactively colored Kevin′s memories of his upbringing and youth. He learned of his mother′s first two husbands, the fathers of his three older, mythologized half-siblings, and the havoc they wreaked on his mother. He learned of his own father′s seething resentment of his step-children, which was expressed in physical, pyschological, and sexual abuse. And he learned more about his oldest step-sister, Elinda, who, as a young girl, was labeled "feebleminded" by a teacher. When she became a teenager, she was sent to a psychiatric hospital. She entered the clinic at 98 pounds. She left two years later 200 pounds, diabetic, having endured numerous shock treatments. Then, after finally returning home, she was made pregnant by Kevin′s father. Only at the end of the book do we learn what chance in life a person like this has.
While his family′s story provides the framework of the book, what′s left in between is Kevin′s story of growing up in the Pacific Northwest. He tells of his first jobs, first bands, first loves, and one worn, teal blue suitcase filled with the choicest porn in all of Kennewick, Washington.
Employing the same form of memoir as he did in his previous book, Kevin intertwines the tragic with the everyday, the dysfunctional with the fun, lending A COMMON PORNOGRAPHY its undeniable, unsensationalized reality. The elastic conceit of his "memory experiment" captures the many shades and the whole of the Sampsell family -- both its tragedy and its resiliency. Kevin relates this history in a charming, honest, insightful, and funny voice.
About the Author
Kevin Sampsell has been the publisher of Future Tense Books since 1990. His own books include the short story collections Beautiful Blemish and Creamy Bullets. In 2009, he edited the anthology Portland Noir. He works for Powell's Books and lives in Portland, Oregon.
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