The Paragraphs. By Rick Berlin. Cutlass Press, 2016. Paperback. 248 pages.
Review by Francis DiMenno
The memoir form is a strange and wondrous beast. It tends to be less comprehensive than an autobiography, and therefore also tends to be impressionistic rather than concrete; terse rather than prolix; luminous rather than opaque. Impressionistic, terse and luminous is largely what we are given here; this book is mostly sweet, sometimes tough, and never, ever stuffy. All the verbal fireworks are expelled and exploded in short squibs rather than in ponderous earthshaking volleys. The Paragraphs is a memoir which is full of sentiment but seldom merely sentimental; the author is grandiose, but also humble; garrulous, but with a good sense of when to end a story or an anecdote or a thought exercise. Berlin indulges in solipsism, but manages to be entertaining at the same time. This memoir has the feeling of a series of miniatures, loosely strung together under a set list of thematic headings (“family”; “music”; “booze/drugs”). Berlin touches briefly on certain high points in his life: A movie to be shot in Grenada which he dropped out of Yale Drama School to participate in (culminating in the arrest of the entire cast and crew). His glory days as a performer in Orchestra Luna. His 29 years of “waitress” work at Doyle’s in Jamaica Plain. He also talks a bit about topics which appeal to his eccentric fancy: His cat, his new Kia, farts, asses, zits. I get the impression that Berlin has gathered up a series of his ruminations and jottings over the years and compiled them all together. It probably shouldn’t work as a memoir, but mostly it does. This is due almost entirely to the fact that Berlin is a keen observer with the instincts of an artist, as well as a flair for a certain type of (uncapitalized) bop prosody which is likely to be familiar to those who are fond of the works of Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac, et al. However, even though this memoir may partake of the Romanticism of the Beats (as well as that of the Romantic poets) his voice and insights are entirely his own. In fact, one gets the sense, after reading The Paragraphs, that one has just enjoyed a long leisurely chat with the author. This is not necessarily all to the good; in the hands of a less gifted raconteur the reader might have on numerous occasions been tempted to put the book back on the shelf and leave it there. As it stands, the memoir, brief as it is, might have benefited from a few judicious elisions.(There are, to my taste, just a few too may anecdotes about Berlin’s unrequited boyhood crushes on boys.) However, it would be a shame if a ruthless editor had laid hands on this manuscript; he or she might have felt constrained to cut out some of the best chapters, simply because they are peripheral to the through-line. For instance, the chapter on “Band Parents” is cutting and incisive and just a little bit brutal. The ruminations in “College?” are both cynical and wise. The section on “the Grim Smile” reads like a stage-ready Performance Art piece.
There are many passages which stand out for their lyricism and prosody.
if you give it all you got, if you ‘leave it all on the stage,’ you occasionally inhabit an ego-vanishing dimension. your ‘you’ vaporizes. you transmogrify into an energy that is not from, but through the Self. your ‘muse’ Ouija-boards an art wave. this is intoxicating and, let’s face it, you love the love even as you wonder how to win the anonymous art. you invent reciprocity.
From “Is the Grass Really Greener? (Redux)”:
we lie in bed, heavy with the weight of the not done, the ‘all’ we may never be, the relationships that are missing or too much with us, the families that drive us crazy, the cars that won’t start, the jobs that don’t pay enough for the shit we take, the books we never write, the plays we’re not in and the races we’re too scared to run. we’re charged so many debits and collect so few credits.
But Berlin can also be gnomic
From “College?”: “…to spend that much money to learn all the places you fail is false advertising….”
From “Neverland”: “did Peter Pan have it right, or did Dorian Gray?”
From “O Tannenbaum”: “pretty loses out to truth.”
This last quote is as good a place as any to conclude. Berlin’s style is sometimes lyrical and sometimes vulgar, but you always get the strong impression that he employs few, if any filters in this memoir. If you favor such wild, unalloyed Romaticism, then you might decide to read this diverting memoir in one fell swoop.