Two years or so ago essayist-teacher-writer Sven Birkerts created
something of a stir with a book, THE GUTENBERG ELEGIES, that
dismissed the printed book as we have known it as a doomed species.
Now, evidently wanting to get on the record before the last
publisher's press falls silent, he has checked in with a volume of
MY SKY BLUE TRADES (the title is from Dylan Thomas and means
roughly "my heedless youthful escapades") is not a full-bore
autobiography. It covers only the first half or so of Birkerts's 50
years among us, and is more a series of discrete snapshots from
specific times in his life than a connected narrative. The
trajectory is familiar: Suburban childhood (near Detroit),
rebellion against conventional parents, the
sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll scene in college, rootless wanderings
around Europe and the US, unfulfilled stirrings of literary
ambitions, a series of relationships of varying intensities with
women, unsatisfying menial jobs here and there, and finally in his
mid-20s a double breakthrough: first literary recognition, then a
relationship that led to marriage, children, and suburban Boston
residence. The book's final tableau is a family gathering
celebrating Birkerts's parents' golden wedding anniversary.
Birkerts is stingy with exact dates, but one can deduce that he was
born in 1952.
Birkerts is a good writer and tosses off some very vivid phrases in
telling this fairly ordinary story. He is colorful and evocative,
for instance, in detailing his family history (both of his parents
were born in Latvia) and his own early desire to cut himself off
from that history. He did not want to be called by his
foreign-sounding first name, for one thing, and so was called
"Peter" until about age 30. Nowhere in this book does anyone
address him as "Sven."
He is also candid about his uneasy relationship with his father, a
successful architect and the archetypal stiff-necked parent who
deplores his child's long hair, B. O., and hippie friends. That
cozy final anniversary party scene comes as a bit of a surprise
after all the generational conflict in earlier pages.
The one pitfall that Birkerts cannot entirely avoid is
self-absorption. He takes it for granted that the reader is deeply
interested in the workings of his mind, his personal relationships
with others much like himself, what he reads and what music he
listens to, and his protracted struggle to prove to himself that he
really is a writer. All this can be interesting, of course, when we
know that we are dealing with the formative years of a genuinely
interesting and important person. Birkerts is doing pretty well,
but he has not yet reached the point where his extended
post-adolescent musings are of real public interest. There is a
certain amount of solipsistic hot air in this book along with a
good deal of sharply observed and neatly shaped prose. The
procession of women in his life --- let's see, there's Beth, Jess,
Marcie, Terri, and maybe one or two others I have forgotten ---
leads finally to his wife Lynn, who appears seven pages from the
end of the book, a kind of afterthought, and gets her name into his
paragraph of acknowledgments.
MY SKY BLUE TRADES is a kind of 21st century A PORTRAIT OF THE
ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN --- but Sven Birkerts, though a talented
fellow, is not quite yet James Joyce.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 22, 2011