Peter Brown Hoffmeister's The End of Boys has a striking cover: a woman leans solicitously over a small blond boy, her hand on his shoulder. The boy is dragging on a cigarette with great concentration, while an even smaller blond boy looks on interestedly.
It's an old family photo, and on page 71 of his absorbing new memoir, Hoffmeister sets the scene himself: "I have a cigarette between my index and middle finger. I am mid drag. Cooper is waiting his turn. We are smoking cigarettes with my mother. We are smoking European cigarettes because smoking European cigarettes makes us artists like Picasso."
It's only one of many such bizarre episodes, in a childhood whose contours were traced by mental illness. Hoffmeister's mother was subject to mania and depression, his father violent and controlling, and Hoffmeister himself suffered from obsessive tendencies: he clicked his teeth together, counting them; washed his hands over and over, did his exercises in sets of 10.
But in revealing the forces that shaped his troubled childhood, Hoffmeister never allows his messed-up kid self to become too sympathetic—as a teenager, he was unstable and scarily violent, tendencies explained but not justified by his difficult home life. In fact, Hoffmeister forestalls the reader's sympathy with the very first chapter, in which he describes being asked by his mother to kill a neighborhood stray cat. Hoffmeister cries, but he does it; and it's arguably not the worst thing he does before the book's end.
Hoffmeister's prose is bluntly compelling as he recounts the mental and physical trauma that defined his early years: a high-school wrestling bruise that goes septic, causing a near-fatal staph infection. His mother's mental illness. A busted appendix, which his reform-school supervisor misdiagnosed as food poisoning and tried to fix with an enema. Fights. Lots and lots of fights. He describes these scenes with a novelistic emphasis on dialogue, description, and action, recalling the feel of a knife, the crack of a bone, the pop of a gun. For all that mental illness is a recurring theme in The End of Boys, it's surprisingly light on the soul searching and retrospective analysis that usually characterizes memoirs. Hoffmeister foregrounds his own experiences over introspection or critique, lending the work a rare weight and immediacy.