Works Cited: An Alphabetical Odyssey of Mayhem and Misbehavior by Brandon R. Schrand. University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books, 224 pp.
My summer’s most happy reading surprise was Works Cited, a well-written memoir with a structure both clever and pleasing. Brandon Schrand hit upon the idea to tell his coming-of-age story by listing alphabetically the authors he was reading as he came to manhood, from high school through graduate school. You know, like an MLA Works Cited list. What might have been a story too mundane or too urgent with authorial desire to move us emotionally becomes, instead, a truly affecting stealth memoir by a guy who knows he escaped his fate by the skin of his teeth.
All you really need to know about Schrand, who grew up in the working-class sticks in Idaho, is that his stoner-electrician father’s nickname for him was “Bird-Turd.” He was a goofy kid, a heavy metal punk, and an awful student. But he had one great asset that saved him: he was a reader. Although he blew off assigned books, even in college, from which he dropped out and had to fight his way back, he kept finding great books and reading them. His priorities were often wrong, but they were pure.
Here he is, having blown his last $10 on a collection of Hemingway’s short stories:
Who was that young man in that coffee shop that afternoon, and what was he feeling? A strange creature, lean and quiet, he is apologetic in his countenance. It’s a tricky business cracking open our younger selves for a peek inside, especially in vulnerable moments . . . There I sat, broke, with a copy of Hemingway’s stories. The college flunky. The dropout. It’s a wonder I bought the book at all. It’s a wonder I took the time to read it. It’s a wonder how I fell into those pages. But I did. First in that coffee shop, and then in the days and weeks and months and years that came afterward.
Today he’s a creative writing professor at the University of Idaho. I’m looking forward to reading his first memoir, The Enders Hotel, about living for a time in a rundown hotel that his family ran in Soda Springs, Idaho.
In Works Cited I got so into Schrand’s story—his herky-jerky academic progress, his drinking and substance abuse issues, his relationships, his writing apprenticeship—that at times I was jarred by finding myself in an earlier time frame. Then I had to recall his structure: just because he’s made it to graduate school, not every author significant to him will be from that time; sometimes, as in life, we find something has thrown us back into high school hell.