Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Cardboard Gods

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Cardboard Gods (Algonquin, 2010).

I really do love the 1970s more than that decade deserves. Heaven knows why, but I get a real thrill from anything that captures the era as well as this book does.

I contend that the very best sources for understanding the decade are all comics: Doonesbury, Howard the Duck and Oh! Wicked Wanda. The first is, bafflingly, still not available in a complete edition, and the last of the three is, criminally, unlikely to ever be available in any kind of legal reprint. But Josh Wilker's Cardboard Gods belongs to a solid, large and respectable second tier of sources that includes Ellen Forney's Monkey Food, Spike Lee's film Summer of Sam, that documentary about Patty Hearst from a few years ago, and the terrific Big Book of the '70s from Paradox Press.

So this is a memoir about a sensitive, night-terror-troubled kid who spent the seventies on the broken end of one of those unsuccessful experiments in marriage that people attempted in those days, and, with his older brother, moved with his mom and her boyfriend, whom she met on a bus to go protest something in DC, to rural Vermont, near the town of East Randolph. Hoping to live off the land and barter blacksmithing services with the locals, young Josh found comfort and solace in a passion for the Boston Red Sox and in his growing treasure box of Topps baseball cards. Each short chapter begins with a reproduction of an old card, which launches a memory, either about the player and his stats, or what might have been happening in his life when he obtained the card.

There are some great stories here, but a lot of them are pretty painful. Until Josh ends up in one of those oddball schools where kids "learn" at their own pace, it's a constant stream of bullying about his hippie home. Things get a little better when he and his brother try to spend some quality time with their hapless, in-over-his-head father, and, at one point, attempt to see a Ted Nugent concert from nosebleed seats in New York, only to realize shortly afterward that they left after the opening act.

Honestly, the book started to lose me as Wilker left the 1970s about two-thirds of the way into it. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but even his pained memories of the decade seem so vibrant that I wanted it to continue. Talking about how they couldn't pick up NBC programming in this area struck a specific "yes! the seventies were like that!" chord with me, even though I never had that experience myself in suburban Atlanta, and in the end, I selfishly wanted the memoir to be more about the decade than about its author.

The only flaws, in the end, are the ones that the reader projected onto the text. Recommended, but, owing to some pretty explicit details about how The Big Book of Teenage Answers impacted his fantasies of Cheryl Tiegs, not for younger readers.

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