She's a Real Mother

Mutha's got eyes in the back of her head.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Mutha Loves That Dirty Water

I have lived in the Boston area for most of my adult life beyond college. Because I moved several times as a kid, it turns out that I have lived here longer than I have lived anywhere else. And so, as the song goes, "I love that dirty water. Oh, Boston you're my home."

Now, in that song, "that dirty water" refers to the Charles River, but it reminds me of a broader theme -- and one of the reasons I really love Boston: the fact that it is flawed. The city has a historic, messy, sometimes dirty and always complicated history on every level imaginable and wears it as if it were a heart on a sleeve.

I have worked for years in programs that serve families in crisis and Boston's poor. These experiences have brought me in contact with this messy history and the ways it has played out and continues to play out in the lives of real people. It has inspired me to develop a real affection and loyalty for the neighborhoods in which these lives go on: Mission Hill, South Boston, Jackson Square, etc. That affection and loyalty springs from the knowledge that these people are not cookie-cutter stereo-types. Everyone has a story, and it is usually a rich one full of trauma but also full of joy and triumph, love.

So, I guess it is no wonder that three of my favorite books are ones that capture my experience of Boston. I highly recommend them all:

Boyos by Richard Marinick
Marinick ran with the boyos of the Irish mob in South Boston (counterparts to the wiseguys of the Mafia) and robbed -- among other things -- armored cars. He got away with it for a number of years and then his luck ran out. After a substantial stint in prison, he emerged a writer, and Boyos is his first novel. It is billed as a mystery, but rather than a "who dunnit" it is more of a "Who's gonna do it?". Marinick creates the scenario of a crime organization unraveling and the reader is held spell-bound by the question: who is going down and who will take him down? Jack "the Wacko" Curran is the story's anti-hero and he sends us through the streets of Southie to reveal not only a part of Boston, but the sub-culture within. Artfully done and clearly the kind of meatiness born out of only the finest imaginations or from the individuals who live this life. Marinick gives his reader both.

All Souls : A Family Story from Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald
Many remember the Boston of the 70's by glimpses of filmed images. Some might remember Carlton Fisk willing his World Series homerun fair, but others remember the light blue helmets of Boston Police motorcycle cops. If you remember the helmets, you might also remember the images of rocks being thrown at horror-struck black children in school buses, and of the close-ups of the twisted expressions of anger on the faces of South Boston's white poor. The residents of Southie were cast as villains and that title has stuck. All Souls tells a richer story, making it clear from the first paragraph that no conflict, especially not the Boston busing crisis is that simple. MacDonald tells the unflinching story of not simply a community, but his community -- not a family, but his family. It is a love letter to his mother, brothers and sisters and a powerful message concerning real healing within South Boston, but also throughout all the neighborhoods effected by that violence and the difficult years that have followed.

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn
Nick Flynn worked at the Pine Street Inn, a shelter for homeless men in Boston. And then one day, not all that long after his mother killed herself, the father he had never really known walked in looking for a bed. It's tough to think of a premise that could live up to this title, but there you go. Flynn is a poet and his prose style shows it, spare and lovely even at it's most brutal. He tells of his childhood on the south shore, a thrill-seeking risk-taking adolescence, a devoted love for a complicated mother, and the thorough beating he withstands from the stark trauma of her suicide. Although Flynn rejects and then ultimately reaches out to his father, the story presented is anything but a pat tale of compassion in the face of adversity. Instead Flynn gives us an inventive, painful and often funny portrait of a man too close to drowning himself to try and save anyone's life.

Nick Flynn has reported that in other parts of the world his audience remains eerily silent or even openly weep as he reads passages from his memoir. This is true everywhere but in Boston. Here his audience laughs.


At 11:01 PM, Anonymous Joe said...

I haven't read it yet - but "Another bullshit night in Suck City" definitely makes my list of top 10 titles. I recently purchased two Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn) titles that I need to unburden. Let me know where I can mail them.

At 11:03 PM, Anonymous Joe Breen said...

Sorry - quick trigger finger. I suppose there is more than one Joe in the world.

At 11:39 PM, Anonymous Joel said...

Dropped in from Doug's place (Waking Ambrose)...we spent three years in Boston and loved it, certainly in part, for the reasons outlined in your post. My wife cried the day we moved and we've missed it ever since.

At 11:06 AM, Blogger Mutha said...

Joe Breen: To ME! to ME! I am a huge Lethem fan.
And look into the Flynn, it is great.
Joel: Boston awaits, always ready to take some homesick souls back. My husband and I moved from Bosotn to Brooklyn for a couple of years and then decided we missed it so much, we came back. When I came over the hill of route 2 and saw the Boston skyline, I cried. So, she gets you comin and goin...
There is nothing like being in Boston for the fourth. The Pops and the fireworks on the Esplanade are very hard to beat.

At 6:34 PM, Blogger First Nations said...

hey, thanks-i've been avoiding boyos thinking it was set in dublin for some reason and frankly, i've had enough miserable irishmen one lifetime. but an american minority mob book? SO there.
i dont understand me either.

At 6:34 PM, Blogger First Nations said...

...enough miserable irishmen for ONE lifetime.
worth repeating, though.

At 11:50 AM, Blogger Mutha said...

FN:Yeah, "enough Irishmen" may be the theme of Boston in general...but I think that's why I love it. All three of these books could be simply tragic, but not so. They talk about resilience, rebirth.
Definitely check out Flynn too though. He's the one who also writes poems about bees.

At 11:12 PM, Blogger G said...

Mutha - thanks for the recommendations, the last - Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, I gave to my brother as a birthday present a couple of years back (when it first published). Mostly because I liked asking for it at the information desk at Barnes & Noble.

That's the beauty of the Irish - their misery is also their comedy (I know I started life as an Irish Catholic).

Now, I'm going to look for that Harold and Maude post :)

At 6:07 PM, Blogger Mutha said...

Yes G: the title is very fun to say. I had it as a part of my Christmas wish list and had to put it down as "Flynn's Memoirs" because my kids were reading and adding to the list daily -- but the book is great, so check it out if you can.

At 6:08 PM, Blogger Mutha said...

And I started life as an Irish/Polish welcome back! I could use the company.

At 11:47 AM, Blogger G said...

Well, the Irish part - no changing, but the Catholic part, well when you have time, read here:

I am so lame - let's see if that works, if not, it's the 7/4/06 post.

At 11:59 AM, Blogger G said...

Let's try again:

At 10:01 AM, Blogger Mutha said...

Very touching piece G. The girl can write.


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