Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Book Review: I Am One of You Forever

Title: I Am One of You Forever

Author: Fred Chappell

Date: 1985

Publisher: Louisiana State University Press

ISBN: 0-8071-1410-3

Length: 184 pages

Quote: “Well, Jess, are you one of us or not?”

Jess, of course, is one of his extended family and hometown community. He’s bonded with them through experiences like watching the churchier neighbors try to convert the storekeeper, who drinks and utters Forbidden Words  “just to pass the hours.” These funny and sad memories are, of course, the substance of this book: a boy bonding with his father, brother, and uncles, joking, grieving, playing baseball, playing pranks on each other, singing old songs, in the years around 1940.

Many of Jess’s memories are of his brother, the one who asks the question at the end of his story. There was the Halloween prank they set out to play on the veterinarian, whom they blamed when their old dog died; the vet out-tricked them, and when they ran home their father had rigged up another little scare for “those who disturb the peace of the night.” There was the quirky, morbid old uncle, whose main hobby seemed to be designing and pretesting his own coffin, who hid more bones than there could be in one skeleton around Jess’s home. There was the prank Jess and his father played when Jess’s brother was tempted to elope instead of joining the Army, substituting Feenamint for Beechnut gum: “Real True Love…ought to be a …more interesting disease than diarrhea,” the brother complained.

Then the telegram from the Army reported that Jess’s brother had been killed, not even in battle, but in an accident in boot camp. Jess coped, he tells us, by visualizing the telegram disappearing. His funny stories revolve around this sad story like a moth’s orbit around a light, like new wood growing around a hollow tree.
In the end what this novel has in the way of a plot is not unlike Blake Shelton’s song “Redneck”: “I’m one of the boys’round here…” Jess is growing up to be the kind of man he’s known: not heroic, but lovable…like the average reader’s father or grandfather, Chappell probably calculated when plotting this book. (Who knows how many of Jess’s memories are true stories somebody’s small-town Southern father or grandfather told? How many were Chappell’s own?)

If you enjoyed listening to your elders’ stories, you’ll enjoy I Am One of You Forever. It’s been highly acclaimed as a well-written book. As a “novel” it’s definitely in the “literary” category as distinct from the romance, action-adventure, detective, or other plot-driven type of story. As oral history it’s a little too perfect to be true. As a collection of the kind of stories older people tell about their childhood—selective memory and all that—it is superb. 

Fred Chappell is still living at the time of posting, so I Am One of You Forever is a Fair Trade Book: $5 per copy + $5 per package + $1 per online payment to either address at the very bottom of the screen, and we'll send $1 to Chappell or a charity of his choice.