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Big Books Feature

The Old Familiar Sting

Sex, Death, Pain, And Laughs--Anwar Accawi's Memoir Knows They're All Interrelated

Big Books Issue 2007

Big Books 2007 In Modest Praise Of The Roads Not Taken

The Frightener William Sloane's Two Novels Cut Right Through Genre And Burrow Into a Dark, Uncanny Unknown | By Tim Kreider

The Old Familiar Sting Sex, Death, Pain, And Laughs--Anwar Accawi's Memoir Knows They're All Interrelated | By Heather Harris

Where the Truth Lies Bruce Brooks' The Moves Make The Man Dares To Take Young Adult Fiction Into The Vagaries Of Young Adult Life | By Violet LeVoit

Sexing Up Colonialism Tayeb Salih's Novel Plows A Different Organ Into Darkness' Heart | By Zak M. Salih

Waiting to Prevail Her Last Name Begins With An M, But Please Don't Call Her McMillan | By Felicia Pride

Younge American The Best Black Intellectual Criticism These Days Comes From A Young Brit Of Barbadian Descent | By R. Darryl Foxworth

By Heather Harris | Posted 9/26/2007

A writer friend of mine once said that every great story boils down to religion and sex: the possibility of being naked with someone else and the probability of being observed by a divine third party who has an opinion on the whole thing. This friend was one of those quietly insane types, if you know what I mean. Nonetheless, her point warrants consideration. Dwell on the image she conjures for just a moment, however, and I think you'll agree that a third feature surfaces: A well-calibrated sense of humor is the holy ghost in the trinity of elements that shows up in a truly great story, particularly one that is based on actual events. The carnality/spirituality of real life is best expressed with one's tongue slightly in one's cheek.

Exhibit A: Garrison Keillor. Why is a man who resembles, by his own admission, a toad-boy and talks about Midwestern Lutherans so outrageously popular? Because he's smart enough to nail their foibles, including his own, and he mixes in just enough booty to keep it real--and then a smidgen more. From his 2001 autobiographical novel Lake Wobegon Summer 1956:

    And she took my hands and put them over her sweater, over her breasts, small and soft and unholstered, the soft nipples. I didn't squeeze or stroke, just let my hands rest there. It was sweet that she trusted me. A tender moment. . . .
    Grandpa was looking down [from heaven] and saying, "I don't believe it." Jesus [was] saying, "Yeah, there's more and more of this sort of thing going on nowadays."

Never mind that the two degenerates are teenage cousins, the interesting plot twist for Keillor is that they're Sanctified Brethren--holy rollers of the first degree. After perusing an issue of High School Orgies, Gary, the aforementioned nipple-toucher and Keillor's alter ego in this Bildungsroman, prays the sinner's prayer: "Lord, I'm a sinner, come into my heart and save me and let me go to heaven." But he doubts the prayer's efficacy; he's said it too many times.

Cut from similar cloth is Exhibit B: Lebanese-American writer Anwar Accawi. Both Keillor and Accawi are regularly compared to Mark Twain. Both write about their post-WWII boyhoods and about falling in love with writing and women under the watchful eye of small-town Christianity. In his 1999 memoir, The Boy From the Tower of the Moon, Accawi recounts a cold winter evening spent under a blanket with a girl named Wardi. Accawi is 9 years old at the time, and Wardi is 14. Their parents are sitting close by, warming themselves in front of the fire and discussing double-yolked eggs.

Wardi . . . put her lips right up against my ear and whispered, "I want to touch it.". . . Wardi wrapped her fingers around it and leaned over me and said, "My, oh, my! It is so big and hard. I like it. I really do. . . ." I was grateful to Wardi for doing what she did to me as I had never before been grateful to anyone.

Accawi's character is younger than Keillor's, so his thoughts on God are simpler and less guilt-ridden. With an 8-year-old's logic he muses about how Jesus might have elicited a better response on Palm Sunday had he borrowed a car instead of an ass: "I . . . pictured the Lord rumbling into Jerusalem in a massive black DeSoto with his disciples Peter, John, Thomas, Judas, and the rest of the bunch riding the running boards on either side of him and scaring the daylights out of the Romans."

If Accawi, like Keillor, had stopped there, his memoir would still be deserving of the praise it has received from illustrious critics such as Cynthia Ozick. But he doesn't. Accawi's writing has an additional layer: underneath the well-recollected observations and the beautiful imagery is a fierce emotional courage that produces a stunning account of pain and disappointment.

Accawi does this best in the passages that deal with death. He writes about the demise of his beloved grandmother and several animals with the innocent bravery of someone who doesn't know how the terrible story ends. As the reader, you want him to show you mercy, to spare you the details to which a young boy would certainly be exposed simply because he has not yet learned when to turn away. But Accawi is a storyteller who runs straight toward the thing that makes him shudder. He denies you mercy and instead gives you truth.

After his grandmother, Teta, dies of a terrifically painful form of cancer, a heartbroken Accawi runs to hide out in his secret cave. He shares the cave with some ants that he regularly feeds and considers his friends.

My anger got the best of me, and I kicked the anthill and stomped the scared ants with my foot. They scurried around aimlessly, scared and confused. I sat down on the floor and looked at what I had done. Here and there I saw mangled ants trying to drag themselves back into their ruined home and dying ants that were missing legs, or antennas, lying on their backs, kicking with their feet in the air. Some were cut in half, but they still moved around, not knowing that they were dead already. . . .

I realized I was no better than my grandmother's God who lived in the hills east of our house. Like Him I showed no mercy to my little friends.

You might expect these passages to function as a buzz-kill, stripping the joy from the entire account, but they don't. They don't because of a basic truth about humor. While both Accawi and Keillor expertly wield humor in their treatment of faith and sex, it's Accawi who is more in touch with this axiom: All humor is gallows humor. It only laughs, really laughs, after you hurt.

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