Darling Days, by iO Tillett Wright

What I’m about to do is the worst and best move I will ever make.

darling-days

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.

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Travels with Choir In Search of America

I. home

Going through immigration and border control at Dulles (the worst airport to have ever existed in the entire history of the world). I use my American passport, which saves me about twenty minutes. The immigration official eyes my customs card. “You carrying anything?” I’ve declared the presents I’m bringing for my family–a college coaster from Founder’s Day for my father, a mint Aero bar for The Kid, and a jar of lemon curd for Mamacita. “No sir,” I say. “Just chocolate.” He smiles and taps my passport twice on the counter. “Good girl. Welcome home.”

II. tales of the city

After our first evensong, there are people I recognize in the congregation: my darling and long-unseen friends Jon, Red, and Chelsea, all of whom I met when I was still in high school. Red lives in Ohio, so seeing her is particularly unexpected, and we jump around and shriek a lot. Jon suggests that we go out. “Hell yes,” I say, “but I don’t know this area, so where should we go?” He says, thoughtfully, “I think we should go to a gay bar called Freddie’s in Crystal City.” So we do. There are cheeseburgers, our waitress is a beautiful transvestite with eyebrows of Platonic perfection, I get a cocktail with a flashing ice cube in it, and we all get drunk enough. Jon, who is going to do postgraduate work in musical performance this fall, sings karaoke (Aerosmith and Scott McKenzie), and just at the end of the night, I get drunk enough to sing some too. When I get down off the stage, a ghetto-fabulous man sitting at a nearby table offers his hand for a high five and says, “Darling, that was gorgeous.”

III. bringing down the house

The next night we go back, but we bring the Duchess. She and Red get on like a house afire. We meet a group of amazingly camp anesthesiologists, and somehow get sucked into a poker game which apparently runs on Freddie’s front porch every Monday. The players have names like Donny and Junior, and most of them seem to have been in Vietnam or Kuwait. The only other female in the joint is a sweet butch woman named Lani who has the most perfect country-western voice I’ve ever heard in real life. She plays Texas hold’em with a preserved scorpion in a jar next to her on the table. She says it’s her lucky charm. They invite us to come to a baseball game the next day. We say yes, out of midnight goodwill, knowing full well that in the morning we’ll agree not to turn up. They all think that the Duchess and I are dating. We choose not to correct them.

IV. i’m a stranger here myself

Philadelphia. The day has been one of unclean hair and hangover and boredom and discomfort, and now we’re at a party thrown for us by one of the churches we’ve just sung at. There’s plenty of wine but I’m too tired to talk to anyone, so I take a cab home on my own. Halfway down Rittenhouse Square, I discover I’ve lost my phone charger, so I ask the driver to take me to a pharmacy. There’s no one behind the counter. I’m leaning over it, trying to make out the writing on the various boxes of electronics, when a woman appears. Her name tag says SHANNIA. She says nothing, but her glare is very eloquent. “Hi,” I say. “Do you have any chargers for iPhone 5?” Her stare becomes indifferent. “No.” I point at an empty hook, from which swings a tag that reads IPHONE 5 CHARGER. “You do stock them, though?” She glances, barely, at the hook. “We sold it.” I apply my most pleasant smile, as though it’s lipstick. “There aren’t any more in the back?” The woman does not move a muscle. “No.” Recognizing the uselessness of any further attempts, I leave. The taxi driver must see the look on my face as I emerge, because he rolls down his window and says sympathetically, “No luck?” “Afraid not,” I say, trying mightily to keep cheerfulness in my voice. The driver makes a face, starts the car again, and says, drily but not unkindly, “Welcome to Philly.”

V. the innocents abroad

Leaving New York by way of Newark. Jersey’s reputation is well deserved if the security people are anything to go by. They are all women, and all are using a tone of voice best described as a bark. I take off my ring in case it sets off the metal detector, and put it on top of my bag. One of the women snarls at me, “Put that back on your finger.” She sounds like Marlon Brando playing Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. This tickles me. I comply. As I’m about to go through the detector, she barks again: “This a laptop?” She’s grabbed my backpack and is feeling the contours of something heavy and rectangular. Fuck you, I think, almost happily. I can do this too. I raise my voice. “No ma’am.” Flat tone, disinterested eyes. The “ma’am”, as intended, does not sound courteous. “What is it?” she snaps. “It’s a folder,” I say. The less detail, the better. Subject, verb, object, now fuck off. And it works. She puts my bag down, says nothing else, motions me forward with a jerk of her head. The guy on the other end of the metal detector winks. Good girl. Welcome home.