It takes a while to settle into Chad Faries' Drive Me Out of My Mind: 24 Houses in 10 Years. A memoir that chronicles the author's itinerant childhood, the book devotes a chapter (including a foreword and afterword, as well as three unnumbered “lost chapters”) to each childhood home. The book's format is important, as it provides structure for the narrative events, flights of fantasy, poetic imagery, and dreams contained therein.
Faries grew up in the 70s, chiefly in Michigan, bouncing back and forth between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas with the occasional short-lived move to Texas or Florida. His memories serve as a window—albeit a murky one—to not only the gritty details of rural Midwest poverty, but also the 70s themselves. The author's mother personified that decade, cruising through her days in a haze of drugs and sex and what we would regard today as nearly criminal child neglect.
Rather than look back at this through an adult lens, Faries chooses the child's point of view with its concordant difficulty of the reliability of memory. Saddled with the obvious problem of how to write the earliest chapters that took place when he was an infant, he employs a mix of narrative, metaphor, and fantasy. Faries's main strength lies in the vivid images he creates from this material, such as a line from when his mother and her friends, still teenagers, are at a restaurant when he isn't yet two:
“Fuck you!” I interjected, and they all laughed and stamped their feet and shook their heads frantically, shaking their cigarettes in the air and exhaling a thick braided smoke into the deep fried air of Speed's.
At other times, the child's standpoint allows Faries to defuse parts of his youth, such as witnessing numerous sexual acts of his mother's. Of his introduction to oral sex, he says simply, “Mother was so hungry she started eating men.”
Using this perspective is a wise choice, as many readers might focus on the shock inherent in certain aspects of a memoir like this—full of chaos, fear, and base levels of humanity. Faries sees—and imitates—a lot of sex, smokes pot numerous times as a small child (“Give him a hit! That's so fucking cute.”), breaks a bone, and lives through an inadvertent poisoning when his mother washes his mouth out with soap:
There were certain periods where mother would jump on the “responsible parent wagon” and punish me for things she figured it was traditionally right to punish kids for. But there was no consistency in it, and she often got it wrong. For example, this time it was bad soap. Gramma said it had a “solvent” in it. We called some special number on the telephone and then Mother hung up and ran to the kitchen to get a quart of milk and made me drink the whole thing.
“I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” she kept saying and hugged me a lot. I didn't know if she was sorry for not leaving me in the basement or for censoring me. It didn't matter much anyway because I was comfortable.
Nothing more is said about it. No adult perspective is needed for such events; readers can supply their own horror, muted somewhat by the author's own dispassionate portrayal of his life.
One constant throughout Faries' chaotic childhood is movement: the rocking of a plastic hobby-horse, the hum of a station wagon or motorcycle underneath him, the frenetic movement of sex and the waves of sound that assault him as a result. And, of course, the same sentence that closes each chapter:
And then we moved.
Reading the book is a bit like stepping onto a carnival ride, but after a while, one settles into the author's rhythm in much the same way he must have settled into his own life. Occasionally, his poetic turns of phrase take the prose somewhat over the top, in a narrative already laden with drug trips and a child's escapist fantasies. But overall, his style lends itself well to the memoir format, shaping and presenting events without making them feel overly massaged. It's a tribute to Faries's skill that the poignant last chapter, which serves as a bittersweet what-if and a gentle disentangling from the muddled lives in the story, is told from the point of view of a pet hamster.
One inevitably wonders about the now-grown Faries, who occasionally tosses an adult comment or chapter into the book—how he survived such a childhood, and what form the inevitable fallout from it might take. A mention of a part two in the dedication suggests that more is forthcoming. After the rollicking, sometimes horrifying, sometimes laugh-out-loud lunacy of Faries's first ten years of life, his teen years sound promising indeed.
Drive Me Out of My Mind can be placed in the same category as memoirs from authors like David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, but is set in its own sordid wonderland of plastic welfare chips, furniture and pillows fashioned from the garbage of others, trailers with a single running faucet, and near-feral children playing naked together. It's his unflinching look at this strata of society, and the unconventional love found within it, that sets the book apart from others of its genre.