I know nothing of Kevin Sampsell. I’d never heard of him or his publishing house – Future Tense Publishing – before an online publicist put me in touch with him. So I came into A Common Pornography a blank slate. I must say how grateful I am that he touts his book as a “memory experiment.” Memoir is a tricky genre, I usually shy away from it. Oftentimes memories are presented as fact rather than an extremely opinionated view of events. Writers of memoir will say, all this happened, but I changed some of it. Bah! But reading A Common Pornography is like sitting on a couch with Kevin Sampsell and you only have an hour before someone walks in on you, so he opens a photo album and starts flipping through the pictures at a rapid pace, giving the reader only the slightest context of each scene before moving on to the next shot.
What prompted the writing of A Common Pornography was the death of Sampsell’s father. During the time Sampsell returns home for the funeral he learns horrors about his father and one of his siblings. That’s all I’ll say about that because that seems to be the hook for the book. What I found however was that these atrocities were still so fresh for him that he can barely talk about them. And the events themselves take up very little time or energy in the book. Instead he frames his early life by these events and what he sticks in-between is the crappy, fluffy, filling you find in Twinkies or Oreos. His own story was not that out of the ordinary to write an entire book about. But I can understand why he wanted to try. What happens within Sampsell’s family is pure evil, but it’s not really his story to tell since he wasn’t remotely involved. So we just get mention of these horrible events and lots and lots of quick quirky little blurbs about being a teenager, liking girls, drinking, wanting to be in a band, and getting jacked-off by other guys. None of which is really outstanding or touching. Sampsell writes away from himself giving us only the memory – the picture – and then somehow removing all emotion from the telling of the tale. For a book written about his life, I still don’t feel like I know anything about him.
Because A Common Pornography was written as a memory experiment, the memories or snapshots aren’t that long, nor are they explored at any length. For lack of a better word you could say that this book was broken up into “chapters,” but I hesitate to say it that way. The titles of each chapter or memory seem more like words hastily written on the back of a photograph. Then you flip the picture over and see two kids playing air guitar or a young man getting a hand-job on a couch. And no matter how long you look at that photograph it only gives you a certain amount of information. There are no little clues or hidden meanings. It is what it is.
Make no mistake, Sampsell is a deft and talented writer. It takes an immeasurable amount of courage to put the best and worst of yourself down on paper; to pop open the secrets of your family like a can of new tennis balls. And the style in which A Common Pornography was written is quite fresh. But I feel Sampsell keeps his readers at arms length, almost as a warning; as if to say,here is all the really bad stuff – if you still like me after this, then we’ll talk. Okay man, let’s talk.