On the back cover of DUMBFOUNDED, Matt Rothschild is said to be "the man David Sedaris could have been if he'd been part of an esteemed family on Manhattan's Upper East Side." Likening yourself to a famous writer is always a no-no for emerging authors, but Rothschild's memoir lives up to the comparison. While he doesn't yet have the near-flawless style of Sedaris, this first memoir is not something to be discounted or brushed off as amateur.
Rothschild was raised by his grandparents in New York, while his mother lived her own life in Italy. Throughout the years his family situation, weight, Jewish ethnicity and emerging sexual orientation separated him from his peers. While many children in a similar situation would fade into the background, Rothschild fights back with humor, sarcasm and by singing Judy Garland songs --- one of which he performs at a school talent show. Unfortunately, the humor and sarcasm aren't always appreciated, and he finds himself being shuffled from school to school --- albeit private school to school --- until he enters college.
While Rothschild's childhood is atypical, so is his level of responsibility. As he grows older and his grandparents' health declines, his mother and uncle are caught up in their own lives --- leaving him to provide care, make adult decisions, and juggle ensuring his grandmother isn't taking the car out on joyrides with trying to have his own social life back at college. It is this level of personal responsibility matched with independence and humility that cause Rothschild to make a decision that will radically change his future.
From the beginning, Rothschild hooks us with humor. The first 80 pages are dedicated to childhood antics and funny dialogue from his grandparents, and this is the part of the memoir that reads just like Sedaris. However, Rothschild breaks out of the Sedaris style when he talks about his mother. While every other scene in the book is light with occasional serious undertones, any mention of his mom is just plain heavy. It is in these situations that he switches from Sedaris’s style to that of Jennifer Lauck --- an author whose memoirs make us cry for the little girl who loses her parents at an early age.
The problem is that, while Rothschild’s strength is humorous narrative, he doesn’t excel at the type of dramatic writing that made Lauck so effective. When I read Rothschild's humor, I am so mesmerized by the story that I forget I am reading words on a page. But with the introduction of any narrative about his mother, I have moved from mesmerization to being fully aware that I am reading about something that has touched the author deeply but does not flow as a narrative should. In these instances, instead of being captivated by the writing and thus transported into the world he is narrating, I am propelled back to the book itself and feel as though I am reading a draft for critique at a writing group.
This, however, is my only complaint, and I'm sure one that is not unusual for a review of someone's first work. The story behind the narration is intense, heart-wrenching and full of plot twists, and this makes up for any flaws in the actual writing. Rothschild presents a boy trying desperately to fit in and failing at almost every turn. His story reads so well that it easily could be fiction, and his characters are so rich with personality that they all could have been invented. But the fact that they are not makes it a precious and priceless tale, and one that anybody --- whether like Rothschild or completely different --- will find worth reading.
Reviewed by Shannon Luders-Manuel on January 21, 2011