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Book Review

‘Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir’ by Floyd Skloot

Floyd Skloot, author of "Revertigo."

Beverly Halberg

Floyd Skloot, author of "Revertigo."

You turn over in bed, and the world turns with you. A solid floor becomes a rocking boat. You’re nauseated. You throw up. You fall down.

There are few things more horrible than vertigo. Often it’s triggered by a virus (much less commonly, a stroke or tumor) that disrupts the inner-ear apparatus responsible for keeping our brains informed about the position of our bodies. A torturous feeling of imbalance results. There’s not much you can do. Take sedatives, lean on a cane, soldier through until it goes away.

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Luckily for readers, when Floyd
Skloot had vertigo he did one thing more: He wrote about it. In “Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir,’’ Skloot, author of many books of creative nonfiction, poetry, and nonfiction, reexamines his entire life through an ordeal most people would rather forget.

The attack of vertigo that struck Skloot suddenly on March 27, 2009 and resolved just as suddenly five months later was not his first. He’d suffered a viral infection in 1988 that left him with neurological impairments including, temporarily, vertigo.

The “re” in his memoir’s title refers to the recurrence of the vertigo. It also refers to Skloot’s revisitation of many metaphorically vertiginous experiences, times when he felt in transition, out of balance, on a precipice: his first crush, his first car, his first exposure to literature.

“Revertigo,’’ made up of 14 essays previously published in various literary journals, is divided into four parts covering Skloot’s youth, his love of books, his vertigo, and its aftermath. Skloot knows that such collections usually fail to flow well as memoir and, in his prologue to “Revertigo,’' advises readers to see the book’s theme echoed in its disjointedness; “to join, through the book’s formal arrangement, in the process of finding and losing and refinding balance.”

Skloot’s advice is unnecessary, though. His essays weave smoothly through pivotal episodes in his life as a son, father, reader, writer, husband, and patient. Skloot’s parents’ volatile marriage, his father’s premature death, his deep love for his wife, Beverly (whom Skloot calls his “spirit level”), his pride in his daughter, Rebecca Skloot (author of the bestseller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’’), his passion for books, and his fragile health all appear again and again in a series of well-chosen anecdotes.

Recollections of resonant moments trigger wider associations and insights in many works of fiction — Proust’s most famously — but Skloot’s focus on “off-kilter” moments, when the world and his place in it seemed most unstable, is unique and fascinating. In “The King and I and Me” he summarizes how he felt as a 13-year-old boy attracted to a classmate, Jacqueline, when they participated in a play in which another classmate’s sexy mother acted the role made famous by Yul Brynner.

“It was as though her [the classmate’s mother’s] appearances as a man had intensified my sense of her as a woman, which in turn had ignited my interest in Jacqueline, who in turn was smiling at me in school.”

Frequently, for Skloot, these moments involve the combustible combination of reading and experience. In “The Bottom Shelf,” Skloot recalls turning in desperation as a teen to a Russian novel for medical advice when his father was very ill: “I’d decided to read Doctor Zhivago in 1959 to save my father’s life.” “Revertigo’’ is full of similarly precise and moving lines.

Skloot only missteps when he lingers too long in one place, belaboring the plot of a novel or play, his progress in physical therapy, his quest to re-create a gluten-free version of a dreadful sounding veal recipe mysteriously credited to his mother, who never cooked.

But even in these slightly less nimble passages, Skloot’s warmth makes us reluctant to part company with him. He’s wise and humane — and funny, too. When a suitor asked Skloot for his difficult widowed mother’s hand in marriage, he recalls, 40 years later, hilariously: “I restrained myself from shouting YES! SHE’S YOURS!”

Dr. Suzanne Koven, who writes the “In Practice” column for the Globe, can be reached at inpracticemd@gmail.com.
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