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The memoir is to literature like the 12-bar blues is to music. At its best, the memoir, like the 12-bar blues, can be used to express a stunningly vivid range of emotion and experience. It is at this level that writers like Frank McCourt and Mary Karr work the keys and that musicians like the late Albert King worked the strings. At their worst, however, both forms are woefully perfect arenas for displays of fiery narcissism: the stadium guitarist in a loin-cloth fingering 20-minute solos, or the mid-list writer regaling us with what it really felt like, by God, to spend a year reading Proust. They are forms easily and relentlessly abused.
Which is why it is so unfortunate that Rosemary Bray, a former editor at the New York Times Book Review, chose the memoir form to explore the role of welfare in the United States. Bray has thrown her voice into the endless chorus of self-chroniclers with “Unafraid of the Dark,” a book about growing up poor and black on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s, making her way through Yale and then breaking into the ranks of that venerable tabloid. It’s not an uninteresting tale — to a point. Where Bray falters is precisely where the guitarist falters when the crowd has stopped dancing and the drummer is counting the ceiling tiles: She keeps talking long after the riff has ceased to be intriguing.
In some respects, “Unafraid of the Dark” is not all that different a story from Times correspondent Rick Bragg’s recent memoir, “All Over But the Shoutin’.” There’s a malevolent father, a martyred mother and a smart and ambitious child determined to scrap his or her way out of poverty. But Bray sets out to frame her rags-to-byline story in the politics of the War on Poverty. It is here where her book might have succeeded — and where it ultimately fails.
“Changes in the welfare system since the late 1980s have made it nearly impossible for this story to happen today,” she writes in her preface, which, along with her epilogue, stand as eloquent bookends to her autobiography. Despite their eloquent promise, however, I suspect they were written as afterthoughts, as a way to imbue her story with a centrifugal force it might otherwise lack. Bray never quite achieves the promise — or sustains the premise — she shows there.
There are moments, to be sure, when Bray delivers on the issue of welfare — and race, as well — but they occur not nearly enough and fundamentally vanish halfway through the book, when she becomes rhapsodic in her descriptions of Yale theatrics and the Sturm und Drang of the New York magazine world. What she fails to present — and what could have made this a work of some portent — is a full and cogent exploration of the welfare system’s effects on her life and her family’s life. We are left to ponder an endless string of anecdotes, some worth the trouble, most quotidian.
It’s not exactly the fault of her writing — it is the form that defeats her, with its soft-focus emphasis on the slightest wisps of memory, its seductive tug on the ego. Rosemary Bray has the experience, intelligence and talent to have written a powerful and important book about the state of America’s poor. Instead she chose to tell us, in excruciating detail, how thrilled she was to receive the title role in a high school production of “Alice in Wonderland.”
Jonathan Miles, a contributing editor at Men's Journal, writes regularly for Salon Books.More Jonathan Miles.