Reviewed by Josh Rioux
Anyone who’s old enough to miss being a kid will be familiar with this certain conversation I’m about to bring up. It comes up randomly among friends close in age and background, usually when the drinks and conversation are on the wane and people start getting reflective. It begins when somebody mentions either a toy they had as kids or their favourite cartoon or else a record their mom used to put on every Saturday morning while they played in the living room; then suddenly the energy sharpens and everyone is jumping in with material from their own childhood—action figures, after-school shows, the particulars of unsupervised rec room brinksmanship… Whatever comes up, there’s a rush of feeling for the shared micro-generational kidscape expressed in the way the group spontaneously recreates it out of pieces of themselves on the spot, a feeling that’s as close to an experience of a collective spiritual bond as many of us are likely to have.
This runs deeper than any nostalgic attachment to the products associated with one’s respective cohort, although that’s how we tend to talk about it. Because it’s not really that, say, He-Man was an awesome toy or that Battle-Damage He-Man was even awesomer if a little weird with that chest wound you could rotate to make increasingly, like, fatal, but that He-Man was something that happened on the floor behind the couch between 8 and 10:30 every weekend morning during the years 1986 and ’87, with the mingled impressions of percolating coffee and slanting winter sunlight braiding a sort of marrow-deep net of memory that’s impossible to separate from your own deepest sense of home and belonging.
We’re all geographers of our own childhoods, but it’s lonely work, isn’t it? Because in a way just having grown up makes each of us by definition the sole exile of our own little lost world, which we carry around inside ourselves in museum form. The compulsion to reach down into those weirdly thrumming places is I think what underlies a lot of the impulse to memoir, but the danger is that you’re ultimately just telling someone a childhood’s worth of dreams, where the symbols are private and tangled and maybe even untranslatable. We talk about the toys because that’s all we really share for sure, because we can’t taste the madeleine with someone else’s tongue.
Presented as a fifteen-year span of diary entries grouped opaquely under twenty-four New Order song titles, Nathaniel G. Moore’s Savage 1986-2011 chronicles the young Nate Moore’s sexually-confused teens and post-adolescent mental breakdown with the kind of unfocused yet hyper-detailed fervour that sells its diary presentation almost too convincingly. The lost world in question is 161 Glenvale Blvd, a home in the central Toronto neighbourhood of Leaside that Moore evokes as a kind of shag-carpeted Labyrinth to his monstrous, basement-bound youth.
Nate is a sensitive, witty kid who loves George Michael, the WWF, and his camcorder, which he places between himself and his world compulsively, racking up shelves of tape like hard copies of his own rapidly accumulating baggage. Roughly twelve years old when Savage opens, he has two parents and a sister and a cat and a best friend, and Moore summons it all up around us in lambent, elastic prose. Check this introduction to his father, David, whose relationship to Nate is one of the twin axes of the book:
Every morning I saw him, Dad appeared only half-lit; on mute, a stale, predawn musk trickling from his mouth, a mouth full of grown-man realities: failed mouthwash, under-brushed teeth, overlooked food particles… This was our Dad; always, first thing, first light, with the rising morning air and the house yawning alive and his first cigarette to set the mood.
The early chapters are anchored by Nate’s relationship with best friend Andrew, the second axis. Their friendship is based around road hockey, pro wrestling, and much hetero porn, and it’s immediately clear Nate loves Andrew with the sort of painful yearning particularly sensitive kids on the ridge of puberty can have for their same-sex friends… or at least it seems as straightforward as that, until their chumming takes an out-of-nowhere left turn into exchanging handjobs during a weekend at Andrew’s family cottage.
Andrew both captivates and antagonizes Nate, and as he nudges their experimentation further along, the obvious power imbalance between the two brings a disturbingly coercive vibe to what might otherwise feel like a sexual awakening. You start to wonder what exactly is going on here; it seems clear that Andrew is gay, but is Nate? Or is he just desperate enough for the love of his friend that he’ll take it however offered?
As if that weren’t enough for one memoiristic novel, Moore cuts to the home front, where we’re introduced to the family’s brand of domestic violence with a scene so random and inexplicable that I actually leafed back through the previous chapters to see if I’d missed some sort of buildup, foreshadowing, anything really. In the middle of a Saturday morning, Nate observes his parents arguing over his father’s mission to expand the zucchini patch in the yard, and something snaps in Nate. He attacks his father, which leads to a stomach-churning scene in the driveway that has no centre, no up-or-down order to it; Nate beats David with a wooden tea tray, his mother tells David Nate’s scaring them, David tells his wife to call the police– and when the situation resolves with the police arriving and David going off to stay with relatives, Nate receives a visit from Child Services in which his mother seems to point to Nate’s violence as the problem in the home, while Nate writhes in fury and blames his father. The scene feels hideously real and yet makes absolutely no sense; it’s like your first sleepover at a new friend’s house just happening to take place the night his family explodes, and there’s no one there who can tell you what the hell’s going on.
From there Nate and David circle each other in a pattern of physical and psychic violence that, as the incidents intensify over time, comes to carry the unmistakable tang of gene-deep insanity. The encounters between the two are narrated in a jittery, overlit prose that sickens in exactly the way it should.
Dad went for my throat, and I went soft. I just didn’t want this, not this time, and went limp as he clamped down. My face teared up, all red inside and out, feeling fucked up and dead, smelling his calloused hands still firmly clasped around my stupid neck. My brain was pissing itself in sadness, and I couldn’t decide what had lit the powder keg this time.
There’s something to the way Moore channels these scenes in all their fevered chaos that really captures how the presence of violence in a home becomes a sort of ambient force that’s both inside and outside everyone involved, an evil that brings monster and victim out in everyone and renders all damage sourceless and indivisible. It’s truly powerful stuff, and yet, as with his relationship with Andrew, in place of the kind of hard-fought self-analysis you might expect from a narrative like this, the authorial Moore approaches the story almost as though he’s as uncertain of where to look as his camcorder-wielding younger self, panning to each corner of his life in succession and simply hitting record.
The result is a lot of beautifully rendered observation and almost zero insight into the roots of all this suffering. Is David a violent drunk, as Nate accuses, or is Nate the family time-bomb, as we see in that first scene and in others—as even his mother reports to Child Services—or is it both? Savage makes it all too clear that this is a family with no perspective on what plagues it; what’s less clear is what Moore himself intends us to believe, or even the extent to which he has any deeper understanding whatsoever.
As the boys age into their late teens, Andrew begins to pull away from Nate, and the loss drives Nate into a deep social withdrawal that strands him at home with his camcorder and his increasingly toxic family. He draws a parallel between his loss of Andrew and the splitting up of the WWF-dominating tag-team of Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage, and spends weeks editing together a video montage of his and Andrew’s taped shenanigans intercut with footage of the wrestlers in action and scored to George Harrison’s “All Those Years Ago,” which he leaves inside Andrew’s screen door in a gesture of pure teen romantic morbidity.
One of the last clips was Andrew and I in low-fi (and low-lit) resolution racing our remote control cars on the street with jagged lightning beckoning the night. Andrew had left because of the pending rain, but I remained outside, filming the lightning from the safety of the garage, sitting on a discarded couch while the camcorder wheezed in and out of focus, sounding blind and frightened, watching the jagged storm scar the night and lick the houses.
Nate’s heartbreak accelerates the disintegration of his mental health. Eventually high school runs its course and his parents divorce, selling the house and leaving Nate to couch-surf and experiment with self-harm. The second half of Savage shuffles by in a haze of prescription meds and bizarre, free-associated rants directed at his parents, at us, at the world, melting the reading experience and the narrator’s into a surreal reduction. The gaps between dates grow. Nate drifts in and out of university and consciousness; Nate stabs himself with a steak knife; Nate struggles to find work; Nate harangues his mother with accusations of abandonment; Nate OD’s on his pills, possibly intentionally, in the presence of his father.
Although watching Nate thrash around in medicated anguish is as tragic as anything in the first half of Savage, something is lost when Moore takes the story out of Leaside. There’s a joylessness to the prose in this section that has nothing to do with the darkness of the material–which is no darker than anything that came before, really–and for the first time the episodes start to feel simply reported, as though Moore himself is becoming exhausted with the material. You keep waiting for some resolution, for Nate to finally see what happened between him and Andrew, between him and his father, but it never comes. The closest thing we get to reflection regarding his experience with Andrew comes in the voice of a hectoring ex-girlfriend leaving harassing phone messages years later, and goes entirely uncommented on:
“I don’t believe Andrew abused you, you are such a whining coward. You totally participated in it and you were sad when he was married. When we played badminton, you admitted you had been in love with him–it was an abuse you very much enjoyed–enough to repeat it with me—”
His father gets something both less and more; in place of outside analysis, we get an extended scene of a melancholy Christmas visit, just Nate and Dad, years later, the water under the bridge and the bridge itself washed away. Maybe it’s the memoiristic pose of the novel itself that nudges us to expect explicit revelations, when the lack thereof might just be more realistic. It’s enough to suggest that Moore’s purpose here has never been to plumb the many possible sources of Nate’s mental illness, to shake down the past for answers or even hints.
The way the pace of the book slows as the time between episodes expands, the way Moore intercuts Nate’s personal disintegration with his loss of family members, the decline of his beloved Macho Man, the way the life seems to drain out of the book, evokes nothing more than the mauling of people by time. From this angle, the Christmas visit to his father’s trailer, the little pointless loving details, the suspended quiet of all that pain, still present but settled like dust, is an illustration of the victory of time over trauma by nothing more than raw attrition.
Late in the book, when Nate has secured some form of adult stability, writing for a wrestling website and on speaking terms with his family, Nate sends a postcard to his old address, which he explains by saying “I wanted to contact the house, in its most current form. Also, I’m a ghost.” Both the act and the explanation resonate.
Savage is most alive when bounded within Nate’s childhood home. If that seems improbable given the things that went on there, that apparent paradox might be the most compelling takeaway Moore has to offer us. There’s a tight-chested glow to the way he places himself back there–the countless descriptions of pushing VHS cartridges into VCRs, the giddy recounting of his and Andrew’s antebellum good times, the warmly obsessive details like Nate remembering the way Andrew phrased his phone number the first time Nate heard it—that manages to invert a story of abuse and crippling alienation into a love letter to a childhood home, ultimately upending the presumed purpose of a fictional dysfunction memoir entirely. Savage isn’t an exorcism: it’s a haunting. It’s a world that can only really be known by one person, written back into being to be shaken alive and looked deeply into, to be held and walked around in and inhaled.
In Savage‘s heartbroken coda, Nate stages a series of fantasy interview questions for the Macho Man himself, now (significantly) post-mortem, as an open-veined three-am-collect-call gush of memory and unresolved feeling, bringing up his father, Andrew, his family’s disintegration, his history of fandom, and his OD. It’s by far the most powerful moment in the book, almost single-handedly redeeming its at times bloated-feeling 270-odd pages, and, in acting out that heart-deep grasping at the symbols of our buried pasts—for nostalgia, for answers, for recognition—it manages to suggest a lot about why we, the orphan children of this homesick culture, cling inwardly to otherwise ephemeral pop products. Nathaniel G. Moore is the creator–if not the possessor–of one impressively fucked-up past; what Savage points to is the mystery of what drags us heedlessly back there.
Anvil | 280 pages | $20.00 | paper | ISBN # 978-1927380550