Monday, October 26, 2015

Book Review: This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began: Essays, by Joe Bonomo

Text (c) Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet
This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began: Essays
By Joe Bonomo
Orphan Press (Cordova, TN), 2013
249 pages; USD $15.00
ISBN: 978-0-615-75545-8

It can be ordered HERE
Joe Bonomo is a name that is definitely becoming better known in the music historian field. He’s had, in part, books published about the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, AC/DC (for the prestigious 33-1/3 series), and the definitive biography (okay, the only one) of the Fleshtones. I’ve read and reviewed just about everything he’s written (just search this blog), and Joe’s the real deal.
This book, however, takes a autobiographical non-fiction (yes that is a genre, though I prefer the term creative non-fiction) look at his life, in a semi-chronological approach. Rather than a series of anecdotes or a deep analysis of what things mean, this is an artistic look at what makes him tick; not about music, but his formation into what it is he has become.
Over the years, Bonomo has been published in numerous creative writing journals, such as the prestigious The Fiddleback, Creative Nonfiction, The Normal School, The Rumpus, and New Ohio Review. These pieces have been collected (and updated; i.e., re-edited) into this anthology of his work; he is certainly not a One Topic Pony, even within the autobiographical framework.
From discovering girls as a youth in a strict Catholic school through becoming an academic at Northern Illinois University, Bonomo bars no topic of internal conversation, but rather with fluidly and prose language examines key moments, often unsentimentally but rather as facts, as they are true to his memory, and the formation of himself.
While topics such as lost friendships, substances (e.g. booze) and first crushes are clearly and sharply displayed, as he gets older and previous events start to build, that’s when you start to connect the dots and see seminal events in his life, both small and writ large. Not all of it, of course, is fresh and pretty. For example, a discussion on male gaze – especially his own – is strongly evident as he attended strip clubs as a young man:

But as the clothes come off a different cloak is draped. Witness the growing bulge of the strippers G-string – nothing less than her money belt – as she pockets more and more control flowing from these men’s wallets. The sign remains the same for strippers of either gender, the body’s topography cunningly similar to value: for a male stripper, a bulge signifies power, masculinity, control, domination; for a female stripper, a bulge signifies power control, domination – and so, masculinity. … (pp. 91-92).
It isn’t until near the end that specific music show up at all, such as a mention of the use of Gary Glitter and the Ramones at ball games, though in “Student Killed by Freight Train,” he talks right up my Media Theory mindset:
“I wonder if before the invention of movies we heard sentimental orchestral strings in our minds when we read sad passages in novels, or a wave of triumphant music when, say, little Sylvia perched atop a fir tree first spotted the prized heron’s nest. In 1793 while a dying man gazed far ahead or far back in his imagination, did the edges of his perception grow poignantly fuzzy in a cinematic dreamscape?” (p. 183).
We are taken through parts of his life in New York, Maryland, Washington, DC and finally Illinois, where he is currently a professor. In fact, Bonomo almost uses places as a substitute for music as the axes of his life. He will talk about a topic, and pin it to the map by mentioning not only the location, but the building, e.g., such and such a store on this particular street. It’s more than a memory; it gives a stranger a foundation, and someone familiar with the local a mental pinpoint equivalent to a smell that brings back a memory.
Location, by fixing it so precisely, presents a form of the cycle of eternity, showing how some things change, but others become both fixed in time and only in memory, so even if they are no longer there, on some level they linger in mind, so they exist yet. He addresses this head-on in “Colonizing the Past”:

In autobiographical nonfiction, place is elastic, no firmer than smoke. Nostalgia carries with it the desire to return and memory its own mindfulness, less the urge to go back than the desire to stay put and try to understand… Google Maps allows me now to fly over my hometown, to revisit in three dimensions an atlas precision the places I’ve rebuilt (or halted the growth of) in my heady imagination. We don’t yet know the effects of this on the culture value of memory: the dream-engine that hovers over the past now competes with digital bits of verifiable information, cartographic certainties, calendar truths.” (pp. 134-135)
One of the focal points is Bonomo’s Roman Catholic upbringing, and what one could argue are the sins that normalize into nearly everyone’s life. In the case of Bonomo, including as I mentioned, there is girls and then women (lust), neighbors (envy in some cases, perhaps), self (pride), drink (could be gluttony), and prayer (I might argue as sloth, as in asking for another – God – to do for you rather than earning).
Covering both small moments that change one’s perspective and larger events, Bonomo meditates on not just the what, but the wonder of it. For example, in one of my favorite moments, in a piece called “Into the Fable,” he contemplates on a moment in his life where an acquaintance does a questionable, yet not normally memorable thing as a child, but Bonomo ponders why that moment has stuck with him for his whole life, and “why I can’t shake it. John has entered the fable. He’s become a literary figure. He’s become fabled. Does that mean that I invented him? He’s now fabulous. He’s now somewhere, not thinking of me” (p. 234). If I may be so presumptuous, we’ve all had moments like that, where certain events become like a television rerun playing inside our heads, for reasons that shake the internal head of reason. He does kind of answer that earlier in “There Was the Occasional Disruption,” where he states, “What begins as rumor can never circle back to fact, instead moves inevitably toward myth.” (p. 175)
Not just because we both worked at a Baskin-Robbins at one point in our lives, I feel a kinship of some kind. Bonomo has lived a very different existence than mine, but there are so many moments that were aha flashes of understanding and on occasional level clear identification. For example, he mentions that “…entering a church, I always felt as if I were entering a movie in the middle. It was a story I felt left out of many times.” (208) This is often how I felt going to synagogue as a youth, and something just didn’t jibe to me; I especially feel it now when I regularly take a relative to a Lutheran church. And don’t get me started on “Spying on the Petries,” a treatise on one of my favorite shows growing up (in repeat form), The Dick Van Dyke Show.
While being a non-poetic form of prose, Bonomo tells stories and thoughts without getting overly philosophical, rather staying within the realm of thought and more often than not, the marvel about his life and the events that brought him to the present. The book is an enjoyable read that is exceedingly accessibly without talking down to its reader; both fun and thought-provoking. In short, it’s a good read.

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