These days, if you're a writer looking for book-jacket blurbs like "brave" and "keenly observed," all you have to do is pen a memoir that details what a little shit you were growing up. That's what novelist Jill Ciment does here, writing about her coming of age without much money in Southern California in the '60s with a good-hearted, indulgent, fun-loving mother and an ill-tempered milkpod of a father who -- because of his lousy moods, obsessiveness about money, and inability to connect with his family emotionally -- is ultimately banished to live by himself in a seedy low-rent apartment.
Half a Life starts out promisingly enough. In one sharp passage, Ciment describes her adolescent grooming ritual, which involves teasing her hair high and applying gobs of eye makeup: "I couldn't tell if it was the paint or exhaustion, but my eyelids felt as heavy as garage doors." But if Ciment isn't afraid to paint herself as the kind of kid you might not like much, it's not long before her bravery starts to smell like something else. Never too hot on school, she cuts classes to work for a sleazeball market researcher who pays her surprisingly well to fill out fake surveys. Without finishing high school, she takes off to New York to become an artist. (She ends up working at a "modeling" agency, getting paid to pose nude for lowlife shutterbugs, and though she admittedly never bothered to look for a real job, she makes sure we know how degrading this work is.)
When she can't take any more, she begs her mother for money to fly home. Then she gets accepted at a snobby boho art school by getting a brainy friend to take her SATs for her. By the time Ciment tries to strangle her father after he refuses to give her money to replace her stolen car (her brother shows up just in time to save the man's life), we're probably supposed to be applauding her potent honesty and her triumph over adversity, as the pedigreed blurbmeisters on the back of Half a Life do: they go on about the book's lack of blame and self-pity, oblivious to its lack of self-blame and compassion for others. Just think of the praise Ciment could have gotten if she'd managed to kill the guy. -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Bitter poverty and disordered family life thrust Jill Ciment out into the mean streets of the world long before she reached adulthood. By 18, she had already been a shoplifter, porno model, gang member, forger and seductress. Growing up in the 1960s on the periphery of an upscale neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, she was the archetypal outsider, shunned by the girls she yearned to be like, a sister to her mother and a would-be murderer of her selfish father. More often a truant than a student, she couldn't spell and didn't read until she was an adult. What saved her was a talent for drawing, her toughness and good luck. With these, she turned herself into the somebody that life had seemed to ordain she would not become: loved, loving and productive. In her writing (Small Claims), she is true to her own honest and engaging self. Tender, unsentimental and filled with moments of contagious joy and heartbreak, her "half a life" is more than most people experience in a lifetime.
Novelist Ciment (The Law of Falling Bodies, LJ 2/15/93) takes an unflinching look at the first half of her life. Her approach is straightforward, spare, and laced with ironic humor. When she was in her teens, life with her father, an angry, manic man, grew intolerable, and the family forced him to leave. Poor and frightened, but tough and hard-headed, Ciment drifted on the fringes of respectability, using her wits and grit to get along. Among her rescuers were her gutsy, resourceful mother and her art teacher/lover, a man 30 years her senior. As she ends her memoir, Ciment recalls the final months of her estranged father's life. What is revealed are the longing and compassion of a grown daughter coming to terms with a father who was incapable of nurturing her. This incisive, moving autobiography, written without pretense, brings to mind Mary Karr's The Liar's Club (LJ 6/1/95). Recommended for most libraries.-Carol Ann McAllister, Coll. of William & Mary Lib., Williamsburg, Va.
A bare-bones narrative of a brash girl growing up in Los Angeles in the turbulent 1960s, determined to overcome her father's painful neglect.
Novelist Ciment (The Law of Falling Bodies, 1993) looks back on her adolescence without pity and without judgment. She recounts years spent breaking into cars and houses, shoplifting, forging, and cutting school in a dry, deadpan tone that suits L.A.'s desert atmosphere. She, her mother, and her three brothers eke out a precarious living when her mother forces her emotionally and financially stingy father to leave. This bad girl who can barely spell has only one real interestart. Despite a 30-year age difference, she becomes infatuated with Arnold, her married art teacher. (Curiously, Ciment never comments on the possibility that she may be searching for a father figure.) Seventeen in 1970, and desperate to escape L.A., Ciment scrapes up money to move to New York City. After posing nude at a sleazy "modeling agency," she is overwhelmed by loneliness that sends her reeling back home, where she and Arnold consummate their affair and start living together. She gets into art school on the strength of her portfolio and a friend's willingness to take the SAT for her. Flash forward to 1986: Ciment (now a writer) and Arnold are living in New York when she receives a letter from her fatherhis first overture in years. The two guardedly reconcile, and she visits him in the hospital. When he dies soon after, she seems to grieve, not for him, but for what might have been, had he been a better father.
This flawed but compelling memoir lacks a deeper level of introspection and a fuller sense of the Ciment family, but the author is a triumphantly self-made woman and her book gives us the agonyand intermittent joyof the process in tough, spare, convincing language.
Read an Excerpt
That weekend, my mother called. Her voice sounded nervous, with a ping of unadulterated panic. Knowing how touchy I could be, she mentioned only a couple of the incidents Jack had enumerated- -my difficult job search, my new, dreamy attitude about work. Then, with dire restraint, she brought up Yvette and asked if what Jack had told her was true.
I sighed deeply. I said she knew perfectly well how strait-laced Jack was, how judgmental. The boy must have been a vicar in another life. She should have faith in my perception of people, a little trust in her own daughter. I said she had absolutely nothing to worry about.
My mother had everything to worry about. Yvette was crazy. Or on the iffy brink of it. Over the next few weeks, I watched her collect near-mortal fiascoes and hysterical encounters the way other people collect glass figurines or Faberge eggs. She fought with every grocer for blocks around, with every neighbor who shared a common wall. She never returned from a cab ride without the driver having tried to rob or rape her. She rarely returned from a walk without a "perfectly respectable-looking" pervert having tried to flash her. She taped flesh-colored Band-Aids over her nipples, then wandered the streets in a loose-knit rope vest with see-through gaps the size of checkerboard squares. When men followed her, frothed for her, she screamed obscenities back at them. One day she came home breathless and announced with pride that a construction worker had toppled off a second-story scaffold while trying to ogle her. Another time, she greeted the Chinese delivery boy in only one of those Johnson & Johnson pasties, and when he gaped, she threatened to have him deported.
She wanted me to partake in her madness. She badgered me into wearing tank tops as thin as cheesecloth, short shorts as tight as Ace bandages. I mostly obeyed her; I didn't want her to find out I was a virgin. I had told her so many lies about myself, matched every one of her lewd experiences with a made-up wanton encounter, that if she discovered the meager truth, I'd have shriveled up from shame. So I let her re-vamp me.
One afternoon, she had me dress to the nines short skirt, slinky jersey, and platform shoes. She said she was taking me out to lunch, her treat. The restaurant she chose was near Wall Street, a garnet red room woolly with cigar smoke. We were the only women present. The maitre d' whisked us across the floor, then stuck us in a corner. Yvette ordered for me, a dish I'd never tasted before. When lunch arrived, she leaned across the table and informed me, in a voice breathless with dervish giddiness, that she'd forgotten her purse and hadn't a dime on her. I froze, but she ate with relish. By the way she stared me down, I knew I had better eat, too. I chewed on my pressed duck and lentils as if they were cardboard and gruel. When the bill came, Yvette performed her big scene, all fluster and pouts and crocodile tears until one of the men came to her rescue. Then, without so much as thanking him, she nudged me out the door, whispering, "I told you men were easy."