Being a boy is not always easy. These two childhood memoirs differ in important respects, but they agree about the problematic nature of boyhood pleasure. Gary Paulsen’s ‘Autobiographical Odyssey’ follows in the wake of his 1995 memoir, Winterdance, a much-praised account of dog-sled racing in Alaska. Though he is only now gaining a reputation in Britain, Paulsen has published over 150 books in the United States, many for children and ‘young adults’, specifically boys. His best-known boys’ books are a trilogy of survivalist novels about an urban adolescent, Brian Robeson, stranded in a Canadian wilderness: Hatchet, which sold over a million copies, Hatchet: The Return and Hatchet: Winter, which Paulsen claims to have written in response to fan mail (‘as many as two hundred letters a day’). The themes of these books – isolation, self-reliance, initiation – recur in his new memoir. So, too, do scenes of fantastic adventure and danger. The distinguishing feature of the new memoir – distinguishing it as a book for adults – is its depiction of sex, though this sex involves Paulsen’s mother, so perhaps the memoir, too, counts as a species of boys’ fiction.
The book begins in Chicago, towards the end of the Second World War. Paulsen is five. His father went off to war the year his son was born and has never seen him. Paulsen and his mother live alone, and when the mother goes to work an old woman called Clara does the child-minding. This woman ‘had hair out of her ears and nostrils and a big mole on her cheek and she did not read to me or cook for me or hold or cuddle me’. She drank, being the first of a line of alcoholics (which eventually includes both Paulsen’s parents and Paulsen himself) to figure in the story. The association of drink and danger is established early, when the boy is attacked by a drunken pederast, and his mother rescues him, knocking the drunk to the ground and then, Paulsen suspects, kicking him to death. ‘When at last his hands quit moving, and he lay still,’ Paulsen recalls, ‘she aimed careful kicks at his temples, aimed perfect, almost dainty kicks with the hard steel toe of her work shoes until he didn’t move.’
Paulsen’s mother is spectacularly good looking as well as ferocious. Separated from his father (a father who, she tells Paulsen, ‘has another ... friend ... in France’), she begins taking her son to bars in the evenings and receiving visits from men. The little boy misses nothing, like the super-observant Brian in the Hatchet trilogy: surreptitious kisses, his mother’s flushed face and rumpled dress, the ‘hard movements’ of drunken soldiers as they ‘pushed around me to get close to her’, ‘moaning sounds’ from the bedroom. One morning the boy walks in on his mother spreadeagled over a sofa, ‘Uncle’ Casey ‘pushing down into her ... looking at me and smiling and thrusting’.
There’s nothing Oprah-like about this aspect of the memoir. The child who records his mother’s sexual activities and allure is much more than a victim:
Harding was sitting on the bed and Mother was standing by the table. As I watched he stood and went to her and put his hand beneath her chin and held her mouth up and kissed her on the mouth and she moved toward him, into him, then stepped back and shook her head. I couldn’t hear what she said but I could see she didn’t want to say no, didn’t want to shake her head and Harding could see it too, could see it in the same way, and he moved to her and kissed her again.
Paulsen is six years old and he is mesmerised. ‘I stood and watched him and he looked at my face and smiled and I couldn’t say, couldn’t do anything. Couldn’t move’; ‘I stood and watched them for part of a minute’; ‘I wished first that it wasn’t happening and I hadn’t seen it. But I had. I saw it plain.’ Such experiences, the memoir implies, are wounding, but they are also exciting, and though the mother is indicted for the growing dissolution of her life, she is also invested with glamour, like the mother in Louis Malle’s fictionalised film memoir Murmur of the Heart (1971), in which Oedipal impulses are coolly literalised. It is only at the end, when he’s seven, and the mother gets drunk daily, that Paulsen protests. Coming across her a second time in flagrante, ‘her back to the kitchen counter with her butt kind of up on it and her dress jammed up’, the boy not only watches, and is himself watched, but gives her lover – a murderous snake of a men – the finger.
When the family is finally summoned to join the father, now stationed in the Philippines, it is the mother’s sexual power that gets them not only from Chicago to San Francisco (the trains are full, the military has priority, a demobbed soldier is attracted to the mother, offers a lift, makes a pass) but onto a naval vessel to Manila. Though they are booked on the voyage, the captain is reluctant to let Paulsen and his mother on board because Paulsen has chicken pox; so the mother takes the captain out drinking, returns with him late that evening, her hair mussed, smelling ‘of beer and something stronger’, and everything is okay. ‘I thought of asking her if I would have to call the captain Uncle,’ Paulsen recalls, a thought wholly without guile.
The memoir contains several astonishing action sequences, like those in Winterdance or the Hatchet trilogy. In one, a transport plane carrying women and children to Pearl Harbor malfunctions over the Pacific and the pilot tries to land as close as he can to the ship carrying Paulsen and his mother to Manila. The sun is shining, there is no wind, a lifeboat is lowered into the water. But the ship attracts sharks and those passengers who survive the landing are ripped up in the water. Paulsen watches as 23 women and children are pulled from the sea, at least two-thirds of them savaged by sharks. He also watches as for the next 18 hours his mother and the ships medic administer morphine, cut and suture, ‘and at one incredible point use a small saw to remove the rest of a leg that was mostly gone’. When finally finished, the mother pulls down her surgical mask and Paulsen sees that ‘except for a white square where the mask had been she was completely dark, almost black, with blood’. The next day she starts an affair with the medic.
Paulsen’s father, whose delayed appearance in the memoir is aptly menacing, turns out to be ‘stiff and proper and military’, alternately awkward and aloof with ‘the boy’ (who he never calls anything else), rarely talking ‘except to give orders and tell rules’. He also drinks, as if to escape his own rigidity. It is the family’s Filipino maid, Maria, and Ram, the houseboy, who occupy and comfort Paulsen in the last third of the book, and it is with them that he has adventures. Ram sneaks Paulsen off base (though the Japanese have been defeated, guerrillas still roam the base perimeter), lets him ride water buffalo, reluctantly takes him to a rat-infested burial cave – a scene out of Rider Haggard or Indiana Jones. A typhoon destroys the base, flipping sheet-metal roofs up into the air ‘like flying razors’. Paulsen sees a man scythed completely in half by one roof: ‘the legs and bottom half ran on for another step or two before falling and the man, the top half of the man, pulled himself around with his arms and saw his legs, his bottom half four feet away ... the legs still moving.’
There’s a ‘believe it or not’ quality to such episodes, as much a mark of boyishness as a taste for the grotesque. When Paulsen almost bites his tongue in half in an accident (the book is littered with dismemberings), the doctor ‘reached in with both hands and, without painkiller, sewed the chopped-off half of my tongue back onto the stump’. Once recovered, Paulsen is taught by Ram to eat baloots, a Filipino delicacy consisting of ‘a baby duck killed inside the egg just before it hatched and then allowed to sit in hot sand and rot inside until it became almost a liquid-jelly combination’. Baloots cost a mere ten centavos each and after much practice Paulsen learns to ‘crack the end off the shell and let the contents slide down my throat with ease’. What he never learns to stomach is dog, another Filipino delicacy, although we get several pages on how dog is killed and prepared.
Paulsen’s memoir is written from the boy’s point of view; there is little in the way of retrospective analysis or editorialising, except in the brief epilogue. Guanlong Cao’s comparably affecting The Attic: Memoir of a Chinese Landlord’s Son is written from the present, and suffused with adult feelings of melancholy and loss, as well as irony. Cao is roughly Paulsen’s age but he came to writing late in life. He has published novels and a number of short stories in Chinese, but the only other work of his available in English is the trilogy ‘Three Professors’, in Perry Link’s anthology Roses and Thorns: The Second Blooming of the Hundred Flowers in Chinese Fiction, 1979-80. Cao shares several preoccupations with Paulsen: survival, the mother-son bond, social dislocation. He also aims to shock. In place of baloots we get a whole chapter on Chinese delicacies: Golden Monkey (don’t ask), Live Fish Feast (worse) and Baby Mice (worst of all):
One serving of Baby Mice consists of four infants. The squirming babies are put in a small gilded-porcelain dish and brought to the table. Simultaneously, a dish of sauce is served: mustard, wild pepper, soy sauce, sesame oil, white vinegar, brown sugar. The list of ingredients is complex, and every restaurant has its own secret recipe. But eating the baby mice is always simple. You just pick one up with pointed, ivory chopsticks and drop it in the sauce. It rolls and wiggles, coating its body with all the spices. Then you pick it up again, and pop it in your mouth.
Chew and chew.
The memoir concentrates on Cao’s childhood, but it also traces his life up until 1987, when at 42 he is awarded a full scholarship to Middlebury College in Vermont (presumably for his writing, which had already won him prizes). The setting is Shanghai, where Cao’s father moved the family in 1946. The move is necessary because the father is a landlord – he owns three acres of farmland in the distant Jiangxi Province – and landlords head the new regime’s list of Five Black Categories, followed by ‘rich farmers, counter-revolutionaries, convicts and rightists’. For the next thirty years the father only just supports the family through arduous and ill-paid manual labour, while the mother helps out by starting a series of deeply unpleasant small businesses: manufacturing pork grease, boiling pigs’ heads for meat, making soap from sheep fat. Mother, father, sister and brothers – a family of six – live in a single, cramped attic, sleeping on two narrow pallets; only access to the roof, where bedding is aired, meals cooked and clothes washed, makes these conditions tolerable.
The book opens with memories of the mother’s body, against which Cao claims to have slept every night for the first seven years of his life. These memories are of an innocent, undifferentiated sexuality wholly unlike Paulsen’s troubled scopophilia. Every evening Cao nestled against his mother’s back, his hand exploring her naked belly and breasts. Just before sleep, ‘I would rest my hand between her breasts, letting the palm and back of my hand sleepily absorb her warmth.’ This description follows Cao’s assertion that in thirty years he never once saw his parents sleep together, ‘never even saw any intimate behaviour between them’. Yet Oedipal tension barely figures in the memoir. Though we are told the father beats the sons, he is never shown doing so, nor is he presented as a rival or threat, like Paulsen’s father and his surrogates. ‘Watch out,’ the father grumbles, as the mother lovingly bathes the son: ‘a spoiled cat will jump on the kitchen table.’ Cao eventually takes the father’s point, implicitly attributing moments of adult transgression, a product of selfishness or self-absorption, to the mother’s oceanic embrace. For the most part, though, his memories focus on the pleasures of that embrace, and the minutely particularised and vivified world it opens to the child, like the world of Wordsworth’s ‘blest Babe’ in The Prelude.
The memoir gathers to darkness towards its close, in the process also gaining momentum, which is something the early episodes lack. In 1966, as part of a government campaign to settle students in the countryside, Cao’s 16-year-old sister, Chuen, is assigned to live and work in Yunnan Province, bordering Laos and Vietnam. Cao receives increasingly unhappy letters from Chuen and suspects she’s being sexually molested. Unable to curry favour with government officials, given the father’s status as ‘class enemy’, Cao’s only recourse is a bizarre plot to free Chuen on medical grounds, a plot that draws not only on his training as a scientist and engineer, but on a deep cold-bloodedness.
It begins with an act of withdrawal: the only child living at home, he builds a partition in the attic to close himself off from his parents. He then buys a hypodermic needle, acid-resistant bottles, a variety of strong corrosives, including hydrochloric acid, nitric acid and lye, and six white mice. The legs of the mice are injected with various solutions of lye and acid. The mice begin to tremble, their legs turn black, then they die. Cao dissects the mice to trace the spread of infection; once he even dissects a living mouse. When a corrosive solution is found that takes a full three days to kill, Cao tests it on one of his own toes. His foot begins to tremble, then his thigh, then his whole body. His teeth begin to chatter. ‘I wasn’t surprised or scared,’ he writes. ‘I knew that, like the mice, I would be trembling all night.’ The next morning the doctor diagnoses ‘acute infection from injury. Local tissue necrosis’, and rushes Cao to hospital. The blackened underside of his middle toe is amputated and he is treated with large doses of antibiotics and anti-blood-poisoning serum, which stop the spread of infection. Two months later Cao sends a package to his sister containing a syringe and six bottles of ‘penicillin’. One of these bottles contains 2 ml of 15 per cent lye solution. ‘The target of the next injection,’ he determines, ‘would have a volume twenty times that of the tip of my middle toe.’
The sister survives, but only just, and is returned to Shanghai for further treatment. She has lost the use of her left hand, the palm of which ‘had been completely carved away’. When Cao meets her at the railway station, she looks ‘pale, but ... elated’. The plot has worked. Cao, though, is consumed with guilt. ‘If I had been one of those Nazi doctors,’ he declares, ‘I would quite probably have actively participated and made a significant contribution. I know I am a cold-blooded person, with a ferocious nature.’
It is hard to square this assertion with what has gone before. Somehow we are to relate the plot to free the sister, a matter of brute intellection, to the lovingly observed memories of children’s games and fantasies, of ingenious quests for food, of delicious sexual stirrings, which make up the bulk of the memoir. The boy in these memories is mostly sensitive and sympathetic, certainly no monster. That his relation to a later, colder self remains mysterious is a tribute to the continuing power of boyhood pleasure.