Firebird by Mark Doty

THE TIMES                            20 December 2000

(Cape £12.99)

Memoirists, like policemen, are growing younger. The Christmas bookshelves groan under the weight of the ‘personal stories’, usually ghosted, of pop, soap and sports stars in their early twenties, who use hard covers to give a spurious respectability to material more suited to an interview or chat show. It is, therefore, a particular pleasure to read this memoir by Mark Doty who, while still comparatively young, claims the attention by the power of his perceptions rather than the scale of his celebrity.

Doty is a prize-winning poet whose previous memoir. Heaven’s Gate, is, arguably, the finest piece of writing on the AIDS crisis to have emerged from America.  Here, he turns, his attention to his childhood and adolescence in the fifties and sixties.  He was born in East Tennessee and, although his father’s work for the Army Corps of Engineers took the family across the States, his early life was pure Southern Gothic.  Aficionados of the genre will find many characters to treasure: a maternal grandmother who kept a club by the bed to batter snakes; a paternal grandfather who left a pile of excrement in his seat for his loathed daughter-in-law;   a single mother known euphemistically as ‘Neighbour Lady”.

The heart of the book lies in Doty’s depiction of his bizarre family and emergent sexuality. Both subjects, together with the intensity of Doty’s prose, suggest an affinity with Tennessee Williams – although the Dotys make Williams’s Wingfields seem positively conventional. His father is a bullying racist who refers to ‘Martin Luther Coon’. His mother is an emotionally fragile alcoholic. His sister escapes to Memphis, where she has a fetishistic affair with a mortician, works as a snake woman in a carnival and is jailed for stealing from a drug store.

Meanwhile, Doty himself makes the classic progression from someone who, according to his teachers, ‘relates so well to girls’, to someone who, in the view of his mother who catches him doing a Judy Garland impression, identifies too closely with them. The most chilling moment in the book comes when she pulls a gun on him, only to be thwarted by the safety catch.

Firebird is a immensely powerful book. Doty’s prose is as memorable as his story: nearly every page contains a noteworthy phrase. What it lacks is a guiding principle. The opening image of a Dutch perspective box in which distortion provides a means to view the truth suggests that the fallibility of memory will be a dominant theme, but this fails to emerge. Instead, Firebird is a beautiful collection of vignettes which constitute both a testament to and an example of the art that has enabled Doty to survive.