Handy man

I remember the moment like it was yesterday. I was lying in bed in a pair of baggy wide-legged olive green sweatpants, a stained white tank top, and for some reason a bra. A bra?! To bed?! I was just too lazy to remove it. And then, on page 69 of Kevin Sampsell’s memoir A Common Pornography, I realized that I was in the midst of something really special: The first contender for “Top Three Worst Books of 2010.” I felt a rush of adrenaline that my body probably mistook for an aerobic workout.

Until that point, this collection of vignettes about growing up was just boring. But in the section about the upstairs neighbor girl entitled “Jaynee,” Sampsell’s father is especially attentive to the little girl. Late at night, young Sampsell lies in his bedroom below Jaynee’s apartment and hears sounds from upstairs. “We wondered what was in her heart,” Sampsell wrote of the little girl. Gag.

I see what Sampsell is doing here. His large family is a collection of half-siblings, and his father is a pedophile first, an asshole second. So he takes a series of unspectacular memories that rarely have anything to do with his family, and provides snapshot of his life — yet packages it as something prompted by the death of his father, who really plays a very minor role. Like, he wouldn’t even be listed in the credits. Some writers can do this — write in the slow, quiet voice Sampsell is aping. In fact, Nick Flynn just did it in The Ticking is the Bomb. But Sampsell mistakes “slow, quiet voice,” for lifeless tedium about Joan Jett tapes, playing with the neighbor boys, and the collection of high school girls he dated into his 20s.

Frankly, this is a series that should have been titled Kevin Sampsell: 101 Different Ways to Get a Handy. He steals what the Beastie Boys would call “porno mags”; He gets a handy from one of his friends while his girlfriend hooks up with another dude; He clips photos of an eclectic mix of ladies from said magazines, and files them in a folder; He gets another handy from a freeloader in a film booth in an adult bookstore.

There are girlfriends, and DJ gigs, and rock bands and open mics where he reads his poetry and sorta makes a name for himself as Mr. Poetry Man. But none of this has his fingerprints on it. It is just generic stories that everyone has, but stripped so bare that they aren’t stories to relate to.

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