Between 1946 and 1947, shortly after his father, Rex, left the family, 11-year-old Frederic Tuten “developed rheumatic fever and was moved to my mother’s big bed, where I convalesced for almost year.” Meanwhile his mother “slept in the living room on my old cot behind a moldy old screen.” During his long recovery he began reading the books his mother borrowed from the local library: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer were among his favorites. He was left with a heart murmur, but eventually he returned to school. “[S]eated in the last row by the huge window that faced the street, I was the tallest in the class [and] had no friends.”
This briefly summarizes one of the first chapters of Tuten’s My Young Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019). Though less than 300 pages long, it has nearly 70 chapters. Each of the short chapters precisely details a specific moment of realization, however wayward and, at times, harrowing, that the author experienced on his bumpy, digressive path to becoming a writer. The result is a beautifully composed, accumulative portrait of Tuten at different stages of his young life.
Starting out in the Bronx as a naïve, vulnerable, abandoned, angry, self-involved romantic, he drops out of high school and dreams of moving to Paris and being a celebrated artist. We also see him as a lustful teenager going to porn movies in Times Square, a high school student taking drawing classes at the Art Student’s league, a young adult flunking out of the City College of New York, a drinker and a hero worshipper, an unhappy graduate student at Syracuse, and a habitué of Greenwich Village before moving to the East Village when it was dangerous, eventually becoming the consummate writer that he is today. Yet the memoir stops around 1964, long before he publishes his first novel in 1972.
What’s remarkable about the chapter cited above, and all the others in My Young Life is Tuten’s ability to transport you back in time. A perfect mimic with an impeccable sense of the vernacular, he can pick up the rhythms of speech from those around him:
My father, from Savannah Georgia, loved Royal Crown cola, pork sausages, pickled pig knuckles, pork chops, and hominy grits. Where did she find such stuff in our Jewish neighborhood, where we had moved a year after I was born, my mother telling me later that she wanted me to be raised among people who prized education rather than among the southern Italians not too far away on Arthur Avenue, where I could become a truck driver a Mafia lowlife.
These two sentences show what a terrific writer Tuten is. The first is a tight list held together as much by sound as by meaning. Shifting immediately from his father’s terse masculinity to his mother’s hesitations, the second sentence is a meandering declaration made by Tuten’s mother, who has moved from an Italian neighborhood to a Jewish one in the hopes of bettering her son’s chances in the world. But, as the author elects to never point out, it is much easier to buy pork sausages and pork chops in an Italian neighborhood than a Jewish one.
By letting the reader put the pieces together, the author remains in the character of the young boy living in the Bronx to comment on what he has just written. This is the marvel of his writing: he seems to effortlessly become one of his earlier selves — whether barely formed or ill informed, whenever it is called for. If this book were movie, every scene would be a crystalline shot taken from mid-distance. The camera would never get too intimate, so as to linger on our every flaw, real or otherwise, nor would it back up far enough that one could see everything within a larger context.
At the end of a chapter in which he returns to school, Tuten adds an extensive footnote about seeing Rex for the first time, after 41 years, after he learns from his uncle that his father is dying in a hospital in Jersey City. In the hands of a less exacting writer, the use of a footnote to explain what has happened since the brief period the chapter focuses on could have easily become a gimmick. But Tuten moves seamlessly from one time to another, something he has done in his fiction. For instance, in his novel, Van Gogh’s Bad Café: A Love Story (2005), Ursula, a beautiful 19-year-old morphine addict and photographer, steps from Van Gogh’s café to Manhattan at the end of the 20th century. And in what many have rightfully called a literary icon of American Pop Art, The Adventures of Mao on the Long March (1972), Tuten merged parodies of writers he admired (Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos) with his own wild inventions and found text, creating what John Updike loftily characterized as “a collage of his soul’s contents […].”
Along the way to becoming a writer, Tuten meets a panoply of characters, including the ex-con John Resko who became a celebrated painter and author. Another person we meet is Leonard Ehrlich, who published his only novel, God’s Angry Man (1932), a character study of the abolitionist John Brown, long before Tuten took a fiction writing class with him at the City College of New York in 1955. In both of these cases, and many others, Tuten remembers his relationship with someone the world no longer remembers. Every one of these people warrants a footnote, which the author provides, often implicating himself in losing touch. In other footnotes, Tuten steps back from his early self and gives the reader a wide-angle shot:
There was little to show for my six years of writing because I worked in a totally undisciplined, desultory fashion, in fits and starts, in moods exultant and despairing.
Tuten does many remarkable things in My Young Life. He moves from one neighborhood to another — the Bronx, Mexico City, East Village, West Village — never once getting nostalgic about a place that no longer exists. We learn in a few sentences that his mother thought he should get steady employment in the post office rather than go to college. It turns out the postman was the father of the writer, Ed McBain. Rather than dwell on this missed connection or point out the irony, he moves to the next chapter of his life taking this reader right along with him. For Tuten, there were not two roads diverging in the yellow wood. There was only the one he took: the one that he looks back upon and writes about brilliantly and tenderly.