“The Painful Tangibility of it All: Davon Loeb’s The In-Betweens“
Reviewed by Sean Alan Cleary
A memoir for anyone who likes memoirs: who likes to be deftly navigated through the viscera of a life, a childhood, an adolescence spent observing.
In a memorable scene in Davon Loeb’s memoir The In-Betweens, a young Davon helps “Dad” (his mother’s husband) bring down a tree that threatens the roof of their new house in South Jersey. The family’s moved from North Jersey, and the trees, though one of the reasons for their move, still hold the type of unfamiliar menace you might expect from a towering thousand-pound object hanging overhead. This Dad measures out the cut, places ropes. Paces around. Davon and his mother wait on the porch.
It happens to be the same day Davon’s biological father is expected to pick him up for a trip north. This “Father” is older, white, a dentist whose affair with Davon’s mother began and ended when they both worked for the VA in East Orange, New Jersey. But despite his distance—both emotional and physical, being two hours away and much older—this Father rolls up his sleeves when he arrives, offering to help just moments before Dad whirrs up the chainsaw. Davon’s mother looks on, a bit tickled to see the two men at work.
The In-Betweens is billed as a lyrical narrative, and in its language—lyrical as promised, and viscerally evocative throughout—pulls the story forward as a young Davon navigates the spaces in-between: in-between suburban New Jersey and Alabama, in between white doctor “Father” and black, hardworking, tierless truck-driving “Dad,” in between his siblings, and cousins, who are family but still taunt him as “white boy” on account of his white father and lighter complexion, but also the feeling of being the one black kid in a suburban classroom.
Like in the chapter “Fighting for the Tree” Davon’s The In-Betweens is not without its beautifully crafted set pieces as well. In an early story (“For Aunt Sammy”) Loeb deftly lays out the groundwork of a moment that breaks his relationship with his aunt—a troubled, off-and-on alcoholic who holds a magnetism for young Davon that he couldn’t shake, a similar magnetism that Aunt Sammy held for his mother.
And I think the pleasure of reading of Loeb’s memoir, or at least part of its pleasure, is that our memories form and unform, and change, in ways he makes familiar in their telling: sometimes we understand our lives in the machinations of set-stories, but also in visceral impressions that do not rise and fall with the same structure as “story.” Many chapters–often, I think, the most pleasurable to read–are descriptive narratives that hold their own weight. They are the big important splotches of impression that flash through our minds but don’t fit neatly into our “stories” of ourselves.
Loeb works in these echoes of sensations as they assert themselves in relation to the “stories” of the memoir, especially in his sections when he lays out the landscape of his young life. In a short lyrical reflection in the chapter “Summer Thunderstorms” he recalls that “one tree in the front yard felt the brunt of the force [of the wind]—the branches stiffening, tensing, a muscle” (31). The tree in that moment for young Davon, as it became for Davon the older narrator, asserts itself not as a representation or a description of a tree, but as a moment that comes alive in the mind.
Of course, of the motifs to watch out for in the memoir—the things that often hold these impressions together—trees are among many. Loeb will never fail to point out the need of characters to quench their thirst, both literal and metaphorical, in the heat of their lives. In his beautiful prose you can feel the coolness of the tap on a hot Alabama day or the sugary goodness of too-sweet Kool-Aid, doubled scooped when a careless aunt isn’t looking, or the sound of a beer top “popping” as the sounds of a mower still echoes in the reader’s ears.
In the way that people enjoy the depth of the writings of Frank Conroy or Marilynne Robinson, they will find Loeb’s work satisfying in its beauty and its lyrical qualities. In its inventive structure, its way of bouncing from section to section, you can also see the help and stewardship of Loeb’s former professor Paul Lisicky.
But it’s also a memoir about standing on your feet as a black person, and a black man, in America—about how Loeb navigates rootedness and uprootedness growing up and experience life in New Jersey and Alabama, in the present and the past of his life and his family. In this aspect, readers who’ve enjoyed and found truth in the work of Jesmyn Ward (as a New Englander I’m obligated to not differentiate between Mississippi and Alabama), or John Edgar Wideman (especially in the sections about basketball) will find Loeb’s work to be a wonderful addition to the understanding of life and literature in America, and a black America, pulled in different directions by history, family, and the many calamities of life in our chaotic land.
Loeb, in a section on fighting as a young child, shows us what it feels like to fight back:
“Little humans are like hair cells of the inner ear when struck, cochlear nerves rattle, and fluid drums, and a head becomes heads, and motions and inertias and gravities, and their laughter like an echo, and the cries of a boy some twenty five years ago, when I curled my finers into a ball, and swung them back as hard as I could, and then the painful tangibility of it all, humankind failing the way it did—the way it always does when bodies are spectacles. And the music we made—the grit and grind of knuckles and chin and the way they watched, with no horror, with no remorse, only applause” (22).
Of our time, there might be no better evocation.
Publisher: Everytime Press
Paperback: 200 pages
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