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When Steve Fellner’s mother is asked by the school principal whether she wants her son to see a psychiatrist, Mrs. Fellner, indignant, responds: “Of course not. I worked hard to ensure he wouldn’t turn out like all the other boring kids who go through this school system. When he gets older, he’ll have plenty of material. He’ll thank me for messing him up.” End of discussion. All Screwed Up is the result of one of many outlandish decisions made by the most eccentric of mother figures.
From his earliest recollections, Fellner is aware that he has been adopted. His mother keeps repeating this fact as a distinction, a way to make him feel special since there is little else for him to celebrate as a boy growing up poor and emotionally neglected in a trailer park outside of Chicago. At school he is teased and battered for acting like a sissy, but coming home offers no comfort since his mother is either lost in her extensive collection of Harlequin romances or practicing her calligraphy by writing suicide notes she leaves lying carelessly around the house. His father, simply known as “Hipless Floyd the Meter Reader,” lacks such self-esteem and paternal authority that he easily vanishes, choosing the non-consequential life of an anonymous vagrant. The adolescent boy is left to fend for himself, seeking escapism and excitement in the Siskel and Ebert movie reviews in the newspaper and by cruising for sex with older men in public toilets and parks. And always in the back of his mind is the resentment of his birth mother’s abandonment, which he blames for having destined him to a life of loneliness.
This traumatic upbringing numbs Fellner to the point of his becoming the sardonic, unflappable young man whose wit and knack for queer performance allows him to weather any conflict while in college. But whenever his mother or his homeless father come around, they unearth in him a state of neurosis he thought he had long-since buried, which proves that family ties are more like knots: incapable of coming undone by either time, wish or force.
Structured as a series of vignettes in non-chronological order, All Screwed Up is a memoir written with a dead-pan humor and honesty that allows each piece to amuse, shock and eventually endear itself to the reader. Fellner doesn’t cast himself as a victim or his mother as a villain, nor does he make philosophical pronouncements about growing up poor, adopted and gay. If anything, Fellner’s portrayal of this unconventional mother-son relationship demonstrates that love, redemption and forgiveness have other (albeit more difficult) avenues for expression. Readers used to the dark comic narratives of David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs will appreciate that Fellner’s approach to family dysfunction is neither punch line or hyperbole, but intelligent, compressed storytelling nuanced by the rich imagery and controlled pacing that also distinguishes his award-winning book of poems, Blind Date with Cavafy.
ALL SCREWED UP
by Steve Fellner
Paperback, $16.95, 181p