What I’m about to do is the worst and best move I will ever make.
The book-comparison game is a dangerous one, but it is one that people who sell and promote books have to play on a regular basis. Sometimes this results in weird and vaguely desperate combinations (hands up if you’ve ever seen a book whose jacket says something like “for fans of Stephen King and Sex and the City” and wondered what the hell kind of target demographic that is); sometimes it results in regrettable over-selling (see my review of Diary of an Oxygen Thief, which wasn’t well served by being compared to The Catcher in the Rye). Sometimes—just sometimes—it’s spot on. And so it is with Darling Days, a memoir by iO Tillett Wright (yes, iO, spelled like that) that comes garlanded with comparisons to Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. Incredibly, almost improbably, the comparisons are apt. It’s a great book.
Actually, for my money, Wright is better at prose than Patti Smith is by a considerable margin. I enjoyed Just Kids for its general atmosphere of romantic bohemianism, but much of the writing on a sentence-by-sentence basis felt overwrought, emotional, and repetitive. Wright, by contrast, produces electrifying, evocative descriptions of the Lower East Side in the 1980s, a world that gentrification destroyed so quickly that it is almost as though these places never existed. Take this:
The Bowery Hotel, now a glamorous weekend landing pad for movie starlets, used to be a twenty-four-hour gas station that served radioactive vindaloo on Styrofoam plates to my mother in the middle of the night. Two mangy dogs roamed between the pumps, so dirty and caked with exhaust grease that one’s fur had turned green, the other one’s blue.
Wright’s mother’s husband, Billy, the great love of her life, was shot in his sleep by police. She was never married to Wright’s father, Seth Tillett, with whom she had a relationship after Billy’s death. Wright is entirely open about her parents’ intentions, or lack thereof (“they never had the intention of being a couple or building any kind of domestic life together”), but she’s equally clear about their love for their daughter. They promise each other that they will put her first; they will care for her; they will never put her through foster care or the courts system. Their official relationship might be only temporary, but both pledge responsibility for the baby.
For the first few years of Wright’s life, she lives with her mother. Apart from the abject poverty, the fact that they live up the block from a shelter full of homeless, occasionally violent junkies, and Wright’s desire to dress, act, and be treated as a boy, everything is pretty normal. In 1991, though, things start to change: the management of their apartment building, mindful of new city regulations, announces that the place will be gutted, and everyone will need to move:
The way Ma describes it, it’s like they rode in from Fourth Street on horseback. One day we are minding our own business in the asshole of the universe, and the next day these squares are galloping in, handing out bribes or slaughter as they go.
…’Unfortunately for all of us, either way the city is stepping in and putting its foot down. All the tenants will be temporarily relocated during the renovations to equally comfortable apartments until you can be moved back into your new houses.’
He tries to word this carefully, but when he says “comfortable”, half a dozen people snort and snicker. I’m thinking of the red-haired, pothead leprechaun with six pianos downstairs, and what comfort might mean to him, a kind of joy inconceivable to the man now speaking in American Dream bullshit platitudes. Or what it means to my mom, for whom comfort itself is a dirty word.
This is really the beginning of the end for the people who live in this building, and it seems to be the beginning of the end for Rhonna Wright, too. From this point onwards, she becomes increasingly angry, violent, even psychotic. Little iO has always known that her mom drinks a lot, but this is different, a darkness behind her eyes that frightens. She writes just enough scenes describing fights between her and her mother for us to get the idea: they are both incredibly strong-willed. Rhonna has always been her protector, but things are getting untenable. There’s never food. Rhonna starts cooking things and forgets about them. She hoards trash, newspapers, cardboard. The apartment is dark and difficult to navigate. iO sleeps on an army cot and is woken repeatedly, almost nightly, by her mother raging through the darkness, swearing, screaming.
The “best and worst move she will ever make” is the reporting of her mother’s condition to her school guidance counselor. Wright knows this will catapult her into the care of the city and the courts system, a bureaucracy against which her mother has fought all her life. She knows it will be seen as a betrayal, but she does not have a choice. Eventually, a court grants custody to her father, and she moves to Germany to live with him.
It’s a brief happiness: her father, too, has substance addiction problems, and her father’s girlfriend Julia eventually finds the whole situation too difficult to handle. When Julia finally snaps, pinning Wright to a car bonnet and screaming into her face on a freezing Christmas Eve, it’s a horrible scene, and if Wright’s terrible vulnerability wasn’t already clear to the reader, this part makes it so. She’s a tenacious, hot-tempered teenager, and she can’t have been easy to care for, but her life so far has lacked such a basic level of stability. Her father sends her to a progressive boarding school in England, where she finds the heady joys of first love with a German student called Nikita, but every summer, it’s a toss-up as to where Wright will end up, which country she’ll call home this year.
Clearly enough, what keeps her grounded (and, sometimes, alive) is her circle of friends. There’s Johnny, her Puerto Rican “brother” who leaves his leftovers on the table for her as a kid. There’s the girl she calls KGB, a beautiful Russian; there’s Nan, her larger-than-life godmother; there’s Frankie, a pot-smoking bohemian musician who moves into the flat Wright and Rhonna share in New York, and who can care for Rhonna with the objectivity that Wright cannot summon. There’s also Edie Tillett, Wright’s paternal grandmother, providing unconditional love and a bolthole over the years: her death, near the end of the book, is wrenching.
Wright ends her memoir as she moves out of her mother’s apartment, aged twenty-two, looking for a new start and entering a new relationship. The copy I read was an unfinished proof; I hope that in the final book, perhaps in the Acknowledgments, there’s a sense of how Wright’s relationship with her mother currently stands. It’s clearly the strongest, most significant bond of her life, at least thus far; she never villainizes Rhonna, only tries to understand. (Her mother’s late-revealed dependence on Desoxyn explains a lot: combined with alcohol, it produces psychosis.) All the other people that love and support Wright, too, populate the background of this book, quiet but nevertheless present. That old saying is true, after all: friends are a family you choose.
Thanks very much to Grace Vincent at Virago for the review copy. Darling Days will be published in the UK on 27 September.