I picked up Wade Rouse’s new memoir with no small amount of trepidation. In 2009, I warmly praised on this site AT LEAST IN THE CITY SOMEONE WOULD HEAR ME SCREAM, his often biting but fundamentally kindhearted account of the life he and his partner Gary built in the tiny resort town of Saugatuck, near Lake Michigan. I was prepared to be disappointed by this book, but I’m happy to report that Rouse’s satire hasn’t lost any of its edge, and his generous view of our flawed humanity is just as penetrating and filled with nuggets of insight and wisdom.
Constructed on the scaffolding of a year of holidays (all the traditional ones, with a few of the more obscure, like Arbor Day, “Swedish Day” and even a visit to the Pez Collectors Convention thrown into the mix), IT’S ALL RELATIVE swings between contemporary stories and recollections of Rouse’s often painful childhood, growing up as an overweight, gay young man in a small Ozarks town.
In this volume, Gary has morphed from a salesman into an innkeeper. “If Martha Stewart were to have a full-body electrolysis, breast deconstruction, a penis implant, and well, basically just go whole hog and transgender into a man, she would be Gary,” Rouse writes. Gary is the kindhearted, generous member of the couple, Mother Teresa to Rouse’s Charlie Sheen, who believes that “Sarcasm, like a good tan, could cover any defect.” They spar over parties (Rouse’s “Blue Christmas” meal is an epic flop), peonies, yard sales and helping the homeless, and yet Rouse renders these rough edges smooth to expose the inescapable truth that in many marriages (there is no other way to describe their relationship, prevented only by law from receiving official sanction), even the most ill-matched couple can find enduring happiness.
Rouse’s parents are a frequent target of his humor. His father, an engineer and a staunch conservative Republican, is so maddeningly tightfisted that he would “open his checkbook and stare at it as if it was a crystal ball, waiting for a sign only he could interpret that would grant him the go-ahead to spend the cash.” Yet in a chapter mocking his “Ozarks-ese,” a dialect Rouse describes as “like country rap, Nelly meets Paula Deen,” he uses the story of his father’s heart attack and his mother’s mingled anger and dread to sketch the blend of love and combat that marks many an enduring marriage.
A patient and devoted hospice nurse, Rouse’s mother is the subject of some of his tenderest reminiscences. In his piece on an adult Memorial Day, she fiercely explains why she lavishes care on his grandmother, living her final days in a nursing home. “It’s not an obligation, Wade,” she tells him. “It’s a privilege.” The book’s concluding piece is an emotionally resonant account of his non-Jewish mother’s last wish --- in the midst of chemotherapy for lung cancer --- to visit Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall.
As a reviewer, I didn’t have the luxury of reading Rouse’s book as the calendar rolled from one month to the next, though it feels as if he intended it as that sort of companion. Pull it off the shelf at Halloween to read the cringe-inducing story of the time his mother dressed him as a “Ubangi tribesman,” or start the spring with the story of his disastrous stab at Little League baseball, inspired by his mother’s penchant for exaggerating family accomplishments.
But Rouse saves some of his sharpest wit for the dreaded “Christmas letter,” that nightmare of self-promotion and self-delusion that often serves merely to exaggerate our tiny achievements and gloss over our shortcomings. Chiding one of his correspondents after a disastrous encounter in a supermarket aisle, he uses that experience to highlight one of the central themes of his memoir, the “inability to hide from the one big fact that unites us all: We’re human. We all occasionally wet ourselves. No one is really better than anyone else. We’re all just trying to make it through the year as best we can. We screw up sometimes. We succeed sometimes. We laugh. We cry. We go on.”
We laugh and cry along with Wade Rouse as we recall our own family moments, happy or grim, transcendent or mundane. In a matchless comic voice, tempered by real humanity, he reminds us that our lives, for better or worse, are inescapably rooted in family.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) on March 28, 2011
It's All Relative: Two Families, Three Dogs, 34 Holidays, and 50 Boxes of Wine: A Memoir