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Harper's Magazine
Friday, January 29th, 2010
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A Common Pornography: A Memoir

by Kevin Sampsell

A Common Pornography

A review by Benjamin Moser

(Editor's Note: Kevin Sampsell will read from his new book, A Common Pornography, at our Burnside store on Tuesday, February 2, at 7:30pm. Please join us!)

In A Common Pornography (Harper Perennial, $13.99), Kevin Sampsell describes an ordinary Pacific Northwest childhood punctuated with perversions far creepier than any found in Playboy.

Sampsell's father, we learn at the beginning of the book, was a child molester who impregnated his own daughter, but Sampsell does not dwell as much on this unpleasant figure as on the elaborate maneuvers he undertook to keep his stash of porn away from the old man, a pious Catholic and sentimental whiner who befriended the neighbor girls and whose funeral stunned the family into embarrassment: nobody could think of a single thing to say. But this is not a misery-and-addiction memoir of the daytime talk-show variety: it's the story of an average American childhood, and despite it all, "I thought Kennewick was the ideal place to grow up," Sampsell writes at the beginning of the book. "Of course, this was before I even saw anywhere else."

Sampsell captures this place, somewhat less than ideal when viewed from adulthood; but despite the book's dreary white-trash setting and its sometimes tragic or unappetizing characters, 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. This talent 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 ("I didn't feel any hot sexual vibe from her at all," he writes of the cheap hooker to whom the honor fell, "more like a 'Can I smoke my Marlboro yet?' kind of vibe") that take a story rooted in one place and individual and make it universal.

Benjamin Moser is a contributing editor of Harper's magazine and the author of Why This World.


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