Saturday, November 07, 2009

Book Review! A Place Like This: A Memoir, by Mark S. King

I tend to avoid memoirs, especially Hollywood memoirs, because they can be so pretentious and tedious. Some people, though, have stories worth telling. HIV/AIDS activist and writer Mark S. King is one of them.

King has managed to survive numerous lifetimes of adventure and misfortune in his relatively few years on the planet. He weathered several of those lifetimes in the 1980s, the decade that is the subject of his book, A Place Like This: A Memoir.

A Place Like This covers a lot of territory: Mark King himself; his family and friends; a deadly disease; a movement; and an era. The narrative begins in 1981 with 20-year-old King moving to Hollywood to pursue a career in acting; it ends a little over a decade later when he moves to Atlanta to head the AIDS Survival Project. In between, the universe is utterly transmogrified, and King follows suit with relative grace, all things considered.

I note here that King has been public about his battle with substance abuse. While drugs are a part of this story, King wisely focuses instead on the transformative nature of the AIDS epidemic.

King’s portrayal is honest and unvarnished. That, of course, can be said of any good memoir. A Place Like This, though, goes much further: King not only lets us observe his seamy youth, but also lets us see who he is today because of it. And then, as a bonus, he shines the light outward, inviting the reader to recognize himself as well. Thus, unlike most memoirs, which only feign intimacy, this book truly is intimate. It’s the distinction between a good memoir and a great one.

Consider this passage, where King, in describing his successful foray into the gay phone-sex industry, talks about one of his female customers:
It would be easy to reduce her actions to something comical but I can’t, I won’t. It was a meaningful and well deserved Calgon moment for her, and when her calls suddenly stopped soon after she mentioned a possible suitor in her life, I was truly glad that her life might become less lonely and I missed hearing from her. I hope she’s happy.
Through most of the book, King skillfully balances pathos, sly wit, and bawdy humor. This balance changes once he begins to address the AIDS epidemic. Then, there is just enough humor and hope to keep the reader afloat, but no more; otherwise, the pain is unrelenting, just as it is in real life and just as it should be in the narrative. It is almost too much; but King resists indulging in maudlin self pity, thus shielding the reader from the final precipice. (For an excellent supplement to this book, I recommend HIV in the U.S. Epidemic's Darkest Hour: An Interview With Mark S. King; this interview provides a strong historical and cultural backdrop to the story.)

King is the best kind of writer of all: the kind you don’t notice. His style is conversational and seamless, allowing the story, instead of the writing, to take center stage. This is quite a feat considering his liberal use of flashbacks and flash-forwards. In less capable hands, the story would have been nearly incomprehensible. But King, remarkably, switches between time periods so gently that with very few exceptions, I didn’t even notice. I just knew.

I can only find two faults with A Place Like This, and I had to look hard for both of them. First, photographs would have been awfully nice. King has presented a family portrait full of interesting people about whom I came to care. As wonderful as it was to hear “Uncle Mark” tell all the family stories, I wanted to see the picture album, too. What’s more, King’s persona as an actor is a separate character in this book, and it needs a face. The cover graphics hint at it, but only just. And unless you’ve actually seen how impossibly good-looking King was (and, in fact, is), it’s hard to understand how the hell he got away with as much as he did.

The other minor fault is an occasional and slightly distracting change of voice. Once in a great while, a sentence popped out at me that sounded a lot like writing. Don’t get me wrong: they were perfectly good sentences. But they removed me, just for a second, from the action. Fortunately, within a sentence or two King always recovered and put me back in the passenger seat so I could continue to ride with him, instead of just watching him fly by. In any event, I don’t believe I’ve ever read a book that didn’t skip a beat here and there.

Mark King is the rare person who has a lot to say, says it exceedingly well, and then both gives and gains strength through his words. Perfection is merely theoretical; it does not exist in reality. But A Place Like This comes about as close as it gets.

(Updated to link King's book and to change the first sentence, which was driving me nuts)

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