The Sparkling-Eyed Boy: A Memoir of Love, Grown Upby Amy Benson
The theme of summer love, in Amy Benson's hands, grows up: The Sparkling-Eyed Boy searches out the fault lines of adult nostalgia and desire. The achingly intense adolescent summer days that Amy Benson and the sparkling-eyed boy spend together on the remote shores of
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"The Sparkling-Eyed Boy is so full of color and light and life." -- Brad Land, author of Goat
The theme of summer love, in Amy Benson's hands, grows up: The Sparkling-Eyed Boy searches out the fault lines of adult nostalgia and desire. The achingly intense adolescent summer days that Amy Benson and the sparkling-eyed boy spend together on the remote shores of the St. Mary's River of Michigan's Upper Peninsula are at the complex emotional center of The Sparkling-Eyed Boy. For her, summers meant returning from her home in Detroit to a three-month idyll on much-loved family land, owned for generations, and to a heady culture of teasing, testing local boys. For him, this land is the place he was born, where he'll later find work, marry, and stay: and she was the one he had loved.
"Can you pinpoint that moment? When you made a choice before you even knew that choosing was possible, or the terrifying nature of choices?" The Sparkling-Eyed Boy, with its heart-stoppingly erotic -- and yet wholly imagined -- scenes of illicit love, its searching riffs on love as possession, love as pain, reads like a friend's deepest secrets, shared.
“The Sparkling-Eyed Boy is so full of color and light and life. This is truth of the most profound sort; truth revealed in the artful and lyrical sensibility of Benson’s words and memory. She is dancing with us: not leading, but simply asking us to watch her move and take what we will. Benson shows us here what the memoir can and should do — destroy and resurrect itself over and over. Benson is doing exactly that.” — Brad Land, author of Goat
“The great pleasure and triumph of this memoir is Amy Benson’s ability to make the familiar new again as she explores the country of first love. Over and over I found myself surprised by the unexpected twists and turns, peaks and abysses, of her journey. And also by her lovely, fiercely intelligent prose.” — Margot Livesey, author of Criminals
"[Benson] endeavors to purge her pain via poetic expression, intimately exploring the nature of desire." Elle
"[Her] poetic memoir...built on dreams and memories of what never happened, but could have...." USA Today
"A provocative, intense read." Booklist, ALA
"Startling insight and precision...a potent meditation on love, summer, youth, and how the three intertwine." Body&Soul
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Read an Excerpt
They called us trolls because we lived for nine months of the year below (that is, south of ) the bridge. The Mackinac Bridge connects the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with the Lower Peninsula. For the five miles of the bridge, all you see is water and sky, blurring out at the edges. People died erecting its towers and suspending its cables over water three hundred feet deepthey say the body of at least one man is trapped in a concrete tower. In high winds, tiny un-American cars like mine have been blown off the bridge, down to the storm-blackened Straits of Mackinac. I imagine the impact every time flying free from the car, the beautiful water like an anvil driving the bones in my toes all the way up into my soft neck.
Some people who live far from the Great Lakes don’t know that Michigan comes in two pieces disconnected by water. The Lower Peninsula looks like a mitten, a comfort to trolls far away from home, who can always, when asked by strangers where they’re from, raise their right handspalm forward and lined like a road map, thumb out to the sideand point to their hometown. But the mitt of Michigan is not charming to the billy goats above the bridge. Yoopers, as they often call themselves (a phonetic version of UPers), are surrounded on every side by the largest quantity of fresh water on the globe; they’re flooded with evergreens and wild animals and independence. Even though they’re attached by land to Wisconsin, Michigan’s downstate capital, Lansing, rules them. Detroit, in turn, through its sheer size and auto industry clout, rules Lansing, and yoopers hate Detroit in every way. That’s where we’re from, 350 miles to the south.
The yooper boys I knew told my sister and me they felt sorry for us, all the secret ways the city must be ruining us: to live where things are assembled, and the noise, the grease and sweat that must work its way into our skin. And the stench of the Three Sisters smokestacks, and the Rouge River, the Detroit River, none of which they’d seenbut they could imagine the scent of things burning that never should have been things in the first place. And the blacks. The blacks, with their hot crack pipes and babies and guns that were not at all like their own guns. To accept concrete and traffic and crime and the constant hazy glow that unravels the significance of stars; to live by deforming, more and more every day, what we had been given, down to the compacted dirt under our feethow could we stand it?
They said all of these things in ugly or touching or frightened or silent ways. And I for one believed in places that didn’t looked humbled by humans, where more things grew than were produced, where I could thrill myself for whole moments at a time that I was the last person on earth. I believed those boys were right and I was, by some misfortune, a troll.
Most of us downstaters get as far north as Mackinac Island: we take a hydroplane ferry across the Straits of Mackinac, eat fudge, swoon around the Grand Hotel, pretending we have erased crass modernity but secretly complaining that the island doesn’t allow cars.
Those who actually cross the bridge find that the U.P. is at least ten times as big as Rhode Island and has only one area code for its sparse population. The seven-month winters and towns of thirty or forty people drive off the weak and the ambitious. The U.P. might as well be Alaskaours only because we’re greedy. And, as Alaska was for its gold, the U.P. was prospected for timber and shipping routes almost two centuries ago by the shy, the sturdy, the malignant, and the insane. But this is just the history of America, distilled.
Some people press on past the bridge, though. A handful of downstaters, like my family, perch nervously in their subdivisions most of the year, waiting to snap alive in the U.P. for a few summer months. My suburban family heated our house with a wood stove, cut and split the wood, raised and canned the year’s vegetables, made our own clothes; in short, we did everything we could to live in a time when living required more effort. So when we packed the car up tight each June and drove north, it was understood we were going home. Of course, we noticed the satellite dishes, the Schlitz, the propped-up cars in the U.P.; and, frankly, we needed them in order to claim we liked the wilderness and its rough love better than the yoopers did. A favorite sentiment of my parents’ as we’d watch a pink sun drown itself in Lake Huron, our bathing suits still wet, sand in the seashell curves of our ears, quiet everywhere except for the rhythmic wash of the waves and our own breath, which were one: Remember this when we’re trapped in the middle of the crowded winter.
Even thoough my sister and I wore hand-me-downs and homemade pants, we lived in Detroit and read National Geographic, we’d been to both coasts weeeee’d been to Europe, for god’s sake. We never spoke of these things with our locals, though. We knew that what could give us power in Detroit, like Europe or hair spray, was a liability in the U.P.
We were “summers,” people who spend their summers in the same vacation spot every year. Summers are displaced people: we learn not to be at home at home. But my sister and I knew enough to need a home, and so we wanted their home. We wanted to be more local than our locals. And we thought we had a way in: we could trace our family to founders of the minuscule town. The boys could see our grandfather’s childhood home falling to bits at the base of the hill that sloped down to the bay. We were no mere “tourists.” Oh how my sister and I curled our lips against the tourists. They stayed in the handful of rental cabins just down the shore from us and pulled up with inboard boats behind too-shiny trucks. They came to fish and slap mosquitoes from their pale thighs. They stayed for a week or two, thought it was pretty, wrinkled their noses at the sulfury well water and said how the fishing wasn’t as good as last year. They used this place, but they didn’t need it, and it didn’t dictate to them what was both beautiful and true for the rest of their lives.
All summer we swam with our locals, ate Zingers and sometimes venison steak with them, looked through their yearbooks with them, fell through the rotten boards of their tree houses with them, got summer jobs with them, drank in the woods with them, sometimes we kissed them, broke our hearts with them. And then, every September, we drove back south without them.
Come the next June, we needed them to circle us, sniff our hair, knock us down, and accept us back with them, as one of their own.
Let’s face it: my sister and I were fresh meat to the local boys. Their charms had become stale to the local girls by the time we’d discovered one another. They recited every story they knew by heart in accents that made us giggle Oh yah? Tell me aboat it, eh? They smiled at the charming miniatures of themselves in our rapt eyes.
When kids realize the end of their road is not the end of the world, they wonder if they could have fallen into a better place, a better spread of chromosomes. They are on the verge of a dissatisfied life, a grown-up life, the life of a summer.
Sure, the boys thought they might eventually get laid, but what they really wanted, what we did give up easily, was the sense that they had fallen, by the love of no flimsy god, into the best place on earth. Their wondering was over and their dazzled lives could begin.
He attached himself to me from the first; I don’t know why. He didn’t like makeup on girls and I wasn’t allowed to wear it. I didn’t know how to flirt. Maybe it was as simple as that. Whatever the reason, we stuck together, as friends, for years, while I abused his feelings, pining for another local who, in turn, abused my feelings. This is so typical. We were practicing for life: neglecting what you have and who you are for what you can’t have, who you won’t ever be.
But we never scorned where we were; we knew what beauty stitched itself into the shifting moods of the water and the serious pine trees crowding right down to the water’s edge, daring us to walk among them. He loved with loyalty. He would never leave this place and be from somewhere else, struggling to breathe through vestigial gills. And, as I got ready to go to college, he knew before I did I could never stay.
He married someone else three years after I left and didn’t return. I can only think he needed someone he’d still be touching when he was sixty, skin to skin in the middle of the night.
How do we make meaning out of what does not abide?
He lived, lives still, in a town of maybe forty people and a general store/restaurant/bar, post office, and Catholic church. I can’t remember everything about him as well as I’d like, and I have no way of knowing what I’ve forgotten. A few pictures I have of him, though, tell me much of what I need to know. They were taken during the town’s centennial celebration in 1979 and published in a little book commemorating the festivities and the family history of the area. He was only nine or so (though I was there, in a homemade pioneer dress, we wouldn’t meet for another three years), but he got his black-and-white photo in the booklet twice. In one, a fourth grade class photo, he’s grinning and he has his arm around the boy next to him, about to pinch his cheek with a quick, sharp hand. In the other, my favorite, he is in a rocking contest, propped up in a large rocker. Cushions protect his bony frame, his knees meet in the middle, and his feet fly out to either side, like the hooves of a new colt. But I’m most interested in his face: he’s pushing it toward the camera, a smile so tight across his freckled skin that his eyes are nearly pinched closed. This is a being capable of feeling joy through his whole body to the tips of his teeth. This boy is not mean, nor is he afraid. The centennial booklet belongs to my grandmother, and she keeps asking for it, but I make excuses, put her off. I can’t give up that image of life.
I have another picture that might help to explain. It’s a picture of me taken by the sparkling-eyed boy with my parents’ camera. I’ve always liked the picture, probably because it’s anomalous: I’m fifteen or sixteen, wearing my sister’s clothes, and I look pretty and grown up, like a girl someone’s going to marry. I was neither of those things, though, and I hadn’t yet agreed to go out with him. I’m looking at him over my left shoulder, something unmistakable in my eyesthe knowledge of being loved. I wasn’t sure what made me lovable to him; I was just grateful that, no matter how I tested him, he stuck around, always willing to show me his heart. This was a boy I could count on.
These stories are about permanence and temporalitytwo equally strong poles of human yearning. Death is tragic, we feel. The death of love, also tragic. Another birthday, a sinking helium balloon, the slow distortions of memory, tragedies all. Most of us need to think these things won’t happen to us, so we make choices that might root us to our selves: we get religion, or get married, buy a house, have a kid. But our acquisitions only tell us how mortal we are, glued to one spot, embodying one self until we die.
But, on the other hand, if we have chosen nothingrather, if we have chosen to hover always in a state of possibility, never committing to a place, a person, a job, an argument, an idea, how do we know who we are? What can we point to in order to account for ourselves? We will have left not even the slightest impression on the loose soil of the earth or the skins of the people on it. I will never experience what it’s like to decide early on to stay and eventually die in the same place I was born, the deep knowing that might have been mine.
I admit I am terrified by sameness. The thought of not periodically changing my life is like an unpacked steamer trunk on my chest. But before the sparkling-eyed boy married, I had a wholly unfair expectation that he would be my permanence. That wherever I went, whatever choices I made or refused to make, he had chosen me permanently and kept some part of me safe and constant. I wanted to have every possible thing and to lose nothing in the process. Honestly, don’t we all?
I miss him still. But he has become a soapstone in my pocket, shaped less like himself than the heart of my hand, wearing to the grip of my fingers, grooved with the lines of my palm.
Copyright © 2004 by Amy Benson. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Meet the Author
Amy Benson lives with her husband in New York City. The Sparkling-Eyed Boy, her first book, was selected by Ted Conover as the 2003 winner of the Bakeless Prize for Nonfiction.
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I just finished reading 'The Sparkling-eyed Boy' last night, and I am totally blown away by Benson's writing. She does this amazing thing with time, telescoping particular moments into slow- motion entities, the way ad agencies do in car commercials to turn muddy spray into a thing of beauty. But she does it with words! This is amazing! If you're a fan of David Foster Wallace's essays (c. 'A Supposedly Fun Thing...'), then you should click the BUY button for this immediately. Actually, I would recommend the BUY click to anyone; books with sentences like 'We were practicing for life: neglecting what you have and who you are for what you can't have and who you won't ever be.' should be required reading for humans-in-general. Although the book is billed as a 'memoir', it really isn't. It's more about life and change and timeless, particular questions of existence. Definitely read this -- it's easy to understand how it won the Breadloaf prize.