, December 31, 2009
(view all comments by Arlene Sanders)
NEVER. . .have I had a reading experience like this one.
Completely unprepared for this, Sullivan's book took me by surprise. One does not expect a memoir be thrilling, terrifying, cliff-hanging -- I mean the way Tom Clancy's CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER is.
Reading THE SKY ISN'T VISIBLE FROM HERE is like riding on a runaway train. The journey begins:
"In the spring of 1997, a few weeks before my college graduation my mother disappeared. Over the years, I had grown used to her leaving: a four-day cocaine binge; a wedding at City Hall to which I was not invited; the months she locked herself behind her bedroom door and emerged only to buy cigarettes. I'd spent the greater part of my life feeling abandoned by my mother. Yet she'd always return -- blazing into the kitchen to cook up a holiday feast for ten. . .back from her drug dealer on Brooklyn's Ninth Avenue.
"On the morning of my graduation, though, dressed in a black gown, I walked up the promenade to receive my diploma. . . . My mother's face didn't appear among the proud, applauding parents. I knew then that I'd never see her again. . . ."
Well, then. Issues with the mother. This I can deal with. This I can top, actually. And it all takes place in New York (Brooklyn, Manhattan), where everything is ridiculously scattered and fast. New Yorkers scream and zoom about under the ground like crazed Formicidae, eating things I cannot pronounce -- while I am languidly, safely ensconced in the South, sipping lemonade on a porch. I've seen Sullivan on Internet videos -- a beautiful, brilliant young woman speaking four times faster than I do.
But then the train speeds up. And now the sudden horror when you realize the train is out of control, zinging faster down the rails, my God.
In the railroad car you're riding in, there is, figuratively, a camera. Sullivan eases you behind the camera, which records every single thing -- now and in the past. The camera is outfitted with x-ray vision into Sullivan's heart and soul, as the train plunges down the track. . . .
"Turning to Ursula, I hesitated. 'We're taking a bath. . .together?'
Inside the cramped bathroom, steam ribboned, clouding the mirrors and windows. Ursula's mother was dousing the water with blue crystals, humming as she poured.
Ursula removed her socks, unbuckled her belt, and slid her jeans to the floor. . . .
'I don't think my mother would like this,' I said, uneasy."
We are led into delicatessens and diners, where Sullivan's mother, frequently high on cocaine, works as a waitress:
"When we arrived at the deli one Saturday morning, I said, 'We're home.'
My mother threw open the metal gate. 'Not home Lisa,' she said, puzzled. 'This is work. . . .'
I bolted inside. . .and marveled over the pristine linoleum floors, at the revolving display of potato chips, pork rinds, and Cracker Jack suspended from metal clips near the door. Boxes of Nerds, stacks of watermelon gum on the racks in front of the register boxes of pasta and tissues perfectly arranged on the shelves. Cans of Coke, Tab, and Pepsi in gleaming rows behind the clear refrigerator doors at the back of the store.
'We could live here,' I said.
'This isn't our home,' [my mother] said."
Her mother would subject her to severe mental cruelty, and then rush to protect her. Felicia was emotionally abused, but she was not, at least not always, a neglected child. She was loved, to the extent that her mother was capable of loving a child, but the love was doled out in scraps and shards. Thus at Coney Island, age nine:
"'Take me on the rides,' I said.
All the rides in Coney Island have a height requirement, and a flat palm halted us at each ticket booth. But with a quick glare from my mother, we were ushered past the chain ropes and we hopped on the pirate ship shaped like a giant canoe. She buckled me in, yanked on the strap, hard. . .we clutched each other's hands as the boat began to swing faster. I loved this thrill -- the stomach drop, the quick, stolen breaths, the momentary fear that the ride would never stop, we could fall, and the ground would give way. We were wild-eyed; raising our arms, we screamed. . . .
Coming off the ship, my legs wobbled. . . . Massaging my neck, she asked if I was okay, if I wanted to go home.
'I want to be here,' I said."
They were poor and moved constantly. Sullivan and her mother reversed roles, with Sullivan, not yet a teenager, taking charge when her mother passed out. There was a stream of boyfriends (men in her mother's life); blessedly, one of the good ones became almost a real father to her. Sullivan's mother called her a thief and then forced her to help steal money:
"'We have to go,' [her mother] said. 'Put on your clothes.'
'Go where? It's the middle of the night.' I was scared that she had lost it, that she finally had gone crazy. Because she looked crazy. . . .
When I didn't say anything didn't move, my mother stripped the blankets off my bed. 'I need you to keep watch for us. We need this money. Don't you understand how much I owe?'
'Not me,' I said in a small voice.
'Who else if not you?'
I slid to the floor an drew my knees up close, allowing what she'd said to sink in."
I imagine many readers will think that Sullivan is not going to make it as an adult. I don't see how a person can grow up like this and even dream of being a normal adult or anywhere near it:
"I tell Merritt that tomorrow I have an appointment, a consultation to sell my eggs. To cover credit-card debt, rent for the apartment in Little Italy I say, but my friend knows better. Merritt knows how much cocaine eight thousand dollars could buy. . .
'They'll test you.'
'I don't plan on failing,' I say. . . .
'When does your trip back to sobriety begin?'
'Tomorrow,' I say.
Cocaine was Sullivan's nemesis and savior:
"'So what was it [cocaine] like?' Emily asks. . . .
We hear jackhammers and power drills outside, shaking bodies handling great machines, cracking the pavement, spilling hot tar.
'It's like Broadway up my nose,' I say."
Your past informs the present time of your life, and vice versa, with the present shaping all of your memories. So I like the way the book is organized -- a natural segueing back and forth between the now and then of a life recalled.
Read this stunning memoir. Sullivan's writing is lively, all grace and grit, and you will not find many more accomplished wordsmiths writing today.