In a characteristic gesture of generosity, Kevin Brockmeier dedicates his new memoir to 75 individuals, acknowledging each one in alphabetical order. The roll call, as will soon be revealed, includes one teacher and what is presumably the entirety of his seventh-grade class at Central Arkansas Christian school in Little Rock.
As we get to know these folks in “A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip,” Brockmeier’s graceful and roundly empathetic ode to seventh grade, we come to realize just how generous he is being. The ranks of the dedicatees embrace the good, the bad, and the morally unformed: those who insulted him, those who assaulted him, and those who cajoled him into doing things antithetical to his best interests. Prominently absent from the list is the school’s principal, who, when the 12-year-old Brockmeier was reeling from a particularly harsh round of torments at the hands of friends, suggested to the boy that he might be to blame.
Seventh grade, let’s face it, can be pretty wretched. All that inner foment, all those bodily rebellions, all the insecurity, alienation, scapegoating, bullying, the knowing swagger of the upperclassmen, the teachers who just don’t get you, and the yearning, yearning, yearning. The only year of one’s life more wretched, arguably, is eighth grade. Why dredge it up at all?
In Brockmeier’s portrait of the artist as a very young man, the answer may lie in an epiphanic moment which finds Kevin (as the author novelistically refers to his junior-high self throughout) bedding down on the gym floor with his schoolmates for an overnight school jamboree: “The weather is so nice that as soon as their voices die out they can hear their voices chirring through the walls, a vast sea of hopeful vibrations. Three hundred pairs of ears, Kevin thinks, and all of them listening to the same song.”
Where many writers reflecting upon their coming-of-age days dwell on a sense of apartness and isolation, Brockmeier’s divining rod instinctively gravitates toward points of connection, a trait that propelled his humanistic, fantasy-laden novels “The Illumination” and “The Brief History of the Dead.” Whether performing with classmates in a play he wrote or engaging in cheeky, can-you-top-this? badinage with a band of comrades, seventh-grade Kevin is never more alive or at peace with the world then when he is part of an ensemble.
How regrettable for Kevin, then, that he also has a propensity for the star turn. He is an unrepentant user of big words and subject to a hair-trigger emotionality that causes him to giggle inappropriately in church or well up with tears at the first sign of antagonism. A cultivated alacrity for “dressing out” into his gym clothes is offset by a subversive taste in dressing up that weirds out his friends and instigates administrative damage-control meetings: doing Dolly Parton for Halloween in full-on drag or shoe-polishing his face on Costume Day to emulate the school’s sole black student. As Miss Vincent, his English teacher and chief source of support, remarks, “You keep creating these . . . predicaments.”
One might speculate that Kevin’s talent for predicaments is the acting-out behavior of a kid whose father has divorced his mom and moved to Mississippi. But Brockemeier shows little interest in psychologizing. Rather, like a GPS programmed to the heart and soul, he hones in on the membranous dividing line between camaraderie and cruelty that can make adolescent bonding such a hotbed of confusion.
Brockmeier’s memoir sprints along on the sneaker-heels of action verbs (“Spider-Manning,” “centipeding,” “spirographing”) custom-fitted to the contours of American boyhood. “A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip” effects such a buoyancy that one may be prompted to rethink the whole myth (or “Myth Conceptions,” to name a sequel to one of Kevin’s favorite books) of pre-teen angst that fuels a seemingly inexhaustible genre. After all, Brockmeier is still living in Little Rock. How wretched could it all have been?Jan Stuart reviews fiction and is the author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.