The Territory of Men
Powell's City of Books
Monday August 12
Some would say that Joelle Fraser is a floozy. Others might blame her mother, saying that man-eating apparently runs in the family. Perhaps it was all that moving around and living in the most liberal places of the pot and acid generation (San Francisco, Portland, Hawaii). Despite those restless times, Fraser has prospered and seems set to become Portland's most glamorous new writer. In her lively memoir, The Territory of Men, the shifting cast of men in her life can sometimes seem as replaceable as they are uncaring. Still, not all the men are all bad, and Fraser tries her mightiest to find meaning in all the relationships her mother has while she is growing up; and then later, she exams her own men (boyfriends, father figures, and a husband).
Although it's hard to fathom how Fraser can recall some of the details mentioned in the first couple of chapters ("When I was three years old, I began to walk to the 7-Eleven alone to buy groceries. In the beginning she watched from the window to make sure I looked both ways before crossing the street"), this sort of fuzzy nostalgia starts to slide away to reveal a more clear-headed beauty. Her descriptions of Mac, her "third father," are loving and hopeful and then gone in less than ten pages. But Fraser pulls it off with an emotional pull that is both tender and tough.
As Fraser gets older, she begins to wonder about the need for men. Despite a furious allegiance with her mother (which she slowly feels is not being reciprocated), she begins to feel that she too needs attention from the opposite sex. The chapter about her first kiss is slightly uncomfortable and hilarious--"My friend Lisa came with me. When we got to the football field, Blaine and his friends were already there, sitting on the top row of bleachers where they could see everything, smoking cigarettes and talking. They had a small boom box that was playing a Foreigner song, 'Hot Blooded.' They pretended not to notice us until we were at the bottom step, then they ignored us some more."
Fraser shows composure and grace as she continues to tell tales from her childhood and young adulthood in short, sharp chapters that swell with beautiful descriptions like a "lighthouse stretching above us all like the neck of a giant white bird." The settings constantly shift as Fraser is sent from her mother in Oregon to her struggling father in Hawaii, and back again.
When she finds herself married and living in Spokane at the age of 26, she learns to avoid her husband by going out with her writer friends from a local college, and then later teaching a writing class with a girlfriend at a nearby prison. This particular chapter, "Release," is especially good. Fraser's pitch is perfect as she describes the tension you could only imagine when two young women are put in a room with a group of convicts. This experience ends when some prisoners start a fight, and Fraser stays close enough to watch, feeling a giddy sensation. She is then promptly let go from her teaching position. Later, she and her husband divorce.
Although Fraser's story is not as intense as say, JT Leroy's or Dorothy Allison's, the emotional trauma she experienced is just as real, perhaps made even more ungraspable by her constant moving, shifting families, and occasional lapses into neglect and violence. When her cousin Karyn's death is described--being the victim of domestic violence--it's a sad but inevitable story. It reminded me of Tonya Harding for some reason, the story of someone who barely had a good moment before spiraling hopelessly to a depressing end. One of the most interesting things in this part of the story is how Fraser describes the Hawaiian culture and its people, both the "real locals" and the "haoles" (the white residents). Fraser explains how her father had wanted Karyn to attend a high school named Punahou, where "the tuition is high enough to ensure that Punahoa's student body is mostly haole and Japanese students, and virtually everyone in the graduating class goes to mainland universities." There's an atmosphere of racial tension here, where even the locals' "pidgen English" is scoffed at. It's an intriguing inside look at a part of the United States that many of us still know little about.
The Territory of Men closes with a chapter about mother and daughter comparing their fathers and trying to make peace. Fraser seems well adjusted for someone who had nearly as many fathers as she has fingers, and that's good for us. That she can poetically excavate wisdom and strength out of all these loose roots is quite impressive. KEVIN SAMPSELL