Chapter 16: Act of love

Tuesday, January 31, 2012 at 1:02pm
By Margaret Renkl Chapter16.org
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Robert Leleux (Courtesy Chapter 16)

The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy, Robert Leleux’s first book — which New York Times critic Janet Maslin called “head-tossing, high-strung comedy” — is a coming-of-age story that begins when Leleux is 16 and his father leaves the family for a pregnant jockey. His mother responds to this change of fortune with vast quantities of alcohol, an Audrey Hepburn videotape on continuous replay and the determination to land a new “Mr. Wonderful” who will rescue them from poverty. (In explaining this unlikely narrative arc, Leleux writes, simply, “We’re from Texas.”) While his mother is engaged in a self-reinvention project prominently featuring wigs and plastic surgery, Leleux himself is gradually awaking into authenticity, acknowledging that he is gay and falling in love with the man who in the present-day is his husband.

His new book is a different kind of coming-of-age tale. Marked with the same humor and generosity in the face of family dysfunction, The Living End: A Memoir of Forgetting and Forgiving is nevertheless a sadder, more universal story. Like Beautiful Boy, it opens with a tragedy, but this time the chance for a happy ending is far from inevitable, severely constrained by the nature of the setback: the Alzheimer’s diagnosis of Leleux’s beloved grandmother, who took him in as a teenager when his mother left for California on her hunt for a new husband.

As the maternal figure at the center of this story, Joanne shares some of the qualities that made her daughter such a centrifugal force in Leleux’s first memoir: a sharp wit, a gift for zingers, a desire to be the center of attention, and a ferocious love for Robert Leleux. Unfortunately, another thing the two women share is the belief that she has been unforgivably wronged by the other. By the time Joanne is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she hasn’t spoken to her only child for the better part of 30 years.

The Living End is the story of how Leleux navigates the twin poles of mother and grandmother, as well as the labyrinth of hospitals and specialists he is cast into as his grandmother’s caregiver. To anyone unfamiliar with his sense of humor and unerring ability to locate and memorialize absurdity in all its guises, this will no doubt sound like a dreary tale best avoided until life offers no way around it. In fact, it is an absolute pleasure to read this gentle, funny, deeply wise memoir of how an incurable illness turned a boy into a man, and angry people into a family again. Leleux answered questions from Chapter 16 via email.

Immediately after Joanne’s surgery, when the nurse began to explain how to care for your grandmother’s wounds, your grandfather fled the scene. Joanne wasn’t yet able to speak, but the look she gave you, you write, is “the moment I was invited to become a man.” This initiation comes not from falling in love and committing to a partner, not from moving to the big city, not from beginning the work of your profession, but from learning to change a surgical dressing. Can you comment a little more on that transformation?

It seems to me that, as a full-grown human, the only thing that really counts is showing up for the people you love. To my mind, there’s nothing as scary or as humbling or as fundamental as that. There’s that great Robert Hayden line about “love’s obscure and lonely offices.” And I really believe that changing a diaper or a surgical dressing is a radical act of love. If you can show up for those things, you can show up for anything. If you can change a diaper with love, then you can change the world. Caring for my grandmother clued me in on how shamefully inadequate I am as a person, but it also pointed me in the direction of everything that I think is really important.

You’ve been compared to both David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, but in fact your stories are much more optimistic and (for want of a better word) happier than their own accounts of growing up gay in a hostile environment. They see obviously painful events through the lens of humor, but you simply don’t dwell on the painful events at all. “Trust me, there were some unpleasant moments,” you write. “The older I get, the more boring those moments seem — really just the typical tortures of any atypical American childhood.” You clearly come from a long line of champion grudge-holders — any idea why you’re able to put this kind of sadness behind you?

I do hail from a long line of world champion grudge-holders. They were (and are) completely amazing women, each totally justified in being ticked off with the paucity of options life handed her. The only thing any of these women ever lacked was fulfillment. And the only thing they ever really wanted for me was to be happy. So, it’s a matter of principle for me to be happy and fulfilled, and wildly, ecstatically grateful for their sacrifices and contributions.

Being a member of an oppressed minority group really stinks. Humor is a completely terrific way of responding to that. Another terrific way is being a loving, fulfilled person. Going back and forth between those two strategies can make for a wonderful life. Also, I’m a middle-class white American guy, so what the hell do I have to complain about anyway?

I’m curious about your opening “Note to the Gentle Reader”: What does it mean that you both endeavored “to be as honest as possible” in the memoir and at the same time “changed some names and details” and “in some instances, altered and compressed time”? The relationship of the memoirist to literal fact — as opposed to metaphorical truth — has long been a subject of hot literary debate, of course, and I’m wondering where you come down on the subject.

I believe in being as honest as possible, but I also believe in being very, very humble when you claim to “tell the truth.” My partner comes from a big family, and it’s just amazing to hear them all telling stories about their childhoods. They’re all totally unrecognizable and dissimilar, and all equally true and accurate. That’s a very important lesson to keep in mind when writing about one’s past. Your truth isn’t always demonstrably true or accurate. So, humility first.

Also, in real life, it sometimes takes half a dozen almost-identical conversations with your mother, or whomever, to come to a realization. And there’s just no reason, in narrative, not to condense those six conversations into one. To my mind, it doesn’t make anything less true, and it isn’t so tedious. I think that readers are open, accepting people as long as you’ve set the terms with them up front. Also, I’ve been told that lawsuits are unpleasant, and I’d rather not be sued if it’s avoidable

For more local book coverage, please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.