Seven Tattoos: A Memoir In The Flesh

Seven Tattoos: A Memoir In The Flesh

by Peter Trachtenberg, Karen Dean
Peter Trachtenberg's Seven Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh is much more than the memories of an eloquent writer. It's wild anthropology, eclectic theology, literary observation, and a treatise on the uses of body modification and tattooing. Even Trachtenberg's most harrowing and absurd experiences become universal through his illuminating prose.

As a


Peter Trachtenberg's Seven Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh is much more than the memories of an eloquent writer. It's wild anthropology, eclectic theology, literary observation, and a treatise on the uses of body modification and tattooing. Even Trachtenberg's most harrowing and absurd experiences become universal through his illuminating prose.

As a Jew drawn to the ritual of Catholicism, plagued by its guilt and craving its absolution, he gets a tattoo of the wound of Christ. An unfilial son and regretful lover, he marks himself with the Archangel Michael, who drove Adam and Eve from Paradise. "Most tattoos are signifiers of the past, commemorating events that have already transpired. That's how I see most of mine," Trachtenberg explains. "But tattoos may also act upon the future, protect the body from impending danger or consecrate it for some arduous task ahead."

Each chapter in Seven Tattoos explores the theme evoked by the corresponding tattoo: death, sacrilege, primitivism, rebellion, atonement, sadomasochism, downfall. Each of Trachtenberg's seven tattoos is a totem, a print the world has left on him that he has chosen to display on his body. Like fresh ink, Seven Tattoos is striking, bold and indelible.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Trachtenberg writes like a cross between a maverick anthropologist and an existentialist adventurer. The story of how he pulled himself together after 13 years of heroin and speed addiction, a draining life of dope, sex, vodka, the agonizing deaths of both his parents from cancer and a string of tortured love affairs makes for a fiercely beautiful, heartbreaking, funny, incandescent memoir. His unsparing self-portrait is loosely organized around seven tattoos on his body, which serve as touchstones for his speculations on body and soul; on our banishment of death; trips to Borneo and Amsterdam, where he got tattooed; remembrances of his "tattooed" relatives, Holocaust victims whose skin was branded by Nazi camp guards; and an analysis of 1940s noir films with their fantasy of domineering, sadistic men passively submitting to evil women. Trachtenberg, who grew up and lives in New York City, writes movingly of his strained relationship with his testy father, a socialist who fled Vienna in the 1920s, as the author struggles to come to terms with his Jewish heritage. A "grievously lapsed Jew," he briefly tried Zen Buddhism and flirted with Catholicism. Winner of the Nelson Algren Award for short fiction, Trachtenberg (The Casanova Complex) clearly is a writer to watch. (May)
Library Journal
In a highly original and absorbing memoir, the short-fiction author Tractenberg struggles to explain the ways of God to manor maybe just to himself. Each tattoo, like Catholicism's seven sacraments, leaves an indelible mark on Tractenberg, which he uses to trace his life from early rebelliousness in the 1960s, through drug addiction on New York's Lower East Side, to an attempt at atonement with parents, lovers, and himself. Tractenberg views God as a Mafia capo di tutti capi, a supreme being with a "trigger itchy as Dirty Harry's." Yet, for all its irreverence, his memoir records a serious spiritual questa search for answers to questions at the heart of the world's major religions: the nature of God, the cause of suffering, and the meaning of life itself. Highly recommended.William Gargan, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., CUNY
Kirkus Reviews
A tiresome exercise in self-indulgence posing as a literary memoir, from a winner of the Nelson Algren Award for Short Fiction.

Trachtenberg (The Casanova Complex: Compulsive Lovers and Their Women, 1988) has seven tattoos. Ranging from angels to a Borneo tribal motif to one of Christ's wounds, each has a story, each triggers a series of associations and speculations. It's not a bad idea for framing the tale of a life. But first you need something interesting to say about your life, and a graceful prose style wouldn't hurt either. Trachtenberg fails on both counts. He grew up in a religious Jewish household, where the Holocaust hung heavy in the air. The boy was bright and creative, but unhappy, rebellious, possessed of vaguely socialist leanings. In a lapse from Jewish law, he got his first tattoo—"the first mistake I've ever made that I can't take back." Then there were more tattoos, trips to Borneo and Amsterdam, some time in Baltimore, down and out years on the Lower East Side. He ends up as another messed-up yuppie who thought that drugs and sex might lead to wisdom. When that didn't work out, there were the comforts of therapy, where he could blame his miseries on mom and dad (despite the bile, his account of his mother's death is oddly tender and affecting). Trachtenberg tries to cover up his substantial self-involvement with thin-lipped Buddhist disquisitions on the ultimate nullity of existence: "I would prefer to simply be extinguished, to silence the muttering of self, the thing that preens and craves and hungers and tells itself stories in order to live." Obviously, writing a memoir was the solution.

Beyond the tattoos, there's nothing indelible in this package of angst and sophomoric philosophizing.

Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.26(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.19(d)

Read an Excerpt

Mornings I stand before the mirror and stare at myself for an hour at a time. I turn in profile. I wring the fat on my wrist. I tilt from side to side, checking my love handles. Every woman I've ever gone with has mistaken this custom for some charming vanity, but it's really self-disgust, disgust at the self that is my body. The tattoo? The tattoo changes nothing. No, the tattoo is a beautiful addition to my hideous body, that squat, hairy, clay-colored body that aches and trembles and sweats and shits and stinks. The tattoo is something new for me to feel unworthy of.
But I wouldn't call it a mistake. Or else, the very fact that there is a mistake is what makes it so successful. My tattoo may be the first mistake I've ever made that I can't take back. Because up till now I've taken back everything. I was a loving child and I turned my back on my mother and father. I renounced jobs and apartments. I loved people and reneged on them. I got married and divorced so fast it was like something out of The Time Machine: Whoops, there goes the Industrial Revolution, there goes the wife! Even drugs and booze, the two great loyalties of my life -- I turned my back on them, too, and if you look at me today, you won't see a sign of those abusive love affairs on my entire body. It could be a Mormon who's telling you this. Or at least a lifelong vegetarian.
But isn't this how it's supposed to be for us Americans? For what is the American dream if not the expectation that every shady episode of your life can be erased? Horse-thief uncles, illegitimate kids, old rap sheets -- all you haveto do is change your zip code and they're history. At the very worst, you hire a media consultant and get him to apply a little spin. You can be driven from the White House in disgrace on national television, but if you wait five years, Time magazine will hail you as an elder statesman. I don't know what America Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in, but it wasn't the America of Richard Nixon and Oprah Winfrey. Because if Hester Prynne were walking around today with a scarlet A on her dress, people would think it stood for Armani.

Meet the Author

Peter Trachtenberg, winner of the Nelson Algren Award for Short Fiction, is the author of The Casanova Complex, a work of nonfiction. His stories have appeared in TriQuarterly, Chicago, and other periodicals. He continues his series of commentaries for National Public Radio?s All Things Considered and is a performance artist in New York City.

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