PUNCH ME UP TO THE GODS
by Brian Broome
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
250 pages, $26.
BILLED as a “memoir” in the subtitle, Punch Me Up to the Gods has the artful structure of a novel. Author Brian Broome begins with the book’s framing narrative: A gay Black man recounts his bus ride through modern-day Pittsburgh. He observes and occasionally interacts with some of the passengers. They and some of the places he notices through the window trigger memories of difficult experiences he had growing up poor, Black, and gay in industrial northeastern Ohio and later in Pittsburgh. These recollections constitute discrete episodes held together by the bus ride. At the end, we learn that the bus took him to the airport for a flight to France. Like James Baldwin and other African-American artists, the narrator moves there to escape American racism, one of the things that made his youth so difficult.
The lavish, and justified, praise that this book has received makes it clear that the power with which the narrator recounts these memories has convinced reviewers that they must come from the author’s own youth. (Oddly, the subtitle “A Memoir” appears on the dust jacket but not on the title page.) The blurbs speak of “truth … a masterpiece of a memoir”; “essays focusing on key moments in [Broome’s] life”; “unflinching honesty … a necessary testament of [Broome’s] refusal to allow the strangling expectations of life to rob him of his personhood”; “deft honesty”; etc. But their praise also suggests that much of the book’s merit resides in its autobiographical honesty.
I disagree. We have read such stories before. Whether they tell us anything about the author isn’t important. The very real merit of this masterpiece lies not in any autobiographical veracity but in the art with which it was composed. Broome clearly knows the classics of 20th-century Western literature.
Richard M. Berrong, professor of French literature at Kent State, is the author of Pierre Loti (Critical Lives, 2018)