A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade
If I hadn't been familiar with the work of Kevin Brockmeier, through distinctive novels like THE ILLUMINATION or shapeshifting short story collections like THE VIEW FROM THE SEVENTH LAYER, I might have passed on A FEW SECONDS OF RADIANT FILMSTRIP. After all, how many of us want to relive the ordeal of seventh grade, a time that, for most, was most memorable for pimples and peer pressure? If that description fits, then I hope this review saves you from making the mistake I almost made, because Brockmeier’s evocative, gracefully written memoir so beautifully captures a slice of our lives many may be tempted to write about, but few want to remember.
Brockmeier’s book chronicles his experience in the 1985-86 school year at Central Arkansas Christian School in Little Rock, an institution that featured a combined junior/senior high school. He’s “good with stories and always has been,” and the book draws a through-line from 12-year-old Kevin to the writer he is today. “So I’ll be famous,” he observes in a fantasy conversation midway through the book. “Well, no, I wouldn’t say so,” he is told.
On the night before school begins, Brockmeier confesses to his friend, Thad, “Honestly, I just don’t want anything to change.” As we enjoy his artful stories of sleepovers and trips to the comic book store, assemblies and his unrequited passion for one Sarah Bell --- stories that convey both the crushing boredom and intermittent terror every young person experiences on the cusp of the teenage years --- we come to understand that nothing will be the same when he reaches the end of this pivotal year.
"Brockmeier’s evocative, gracefully written memoir so beautifully captures a slice of our lives many may be tempted to write about, but few want to remember."
Some of the most appealing scenes in the book are ones in which Brockmeier makes some spectacularly wrongheaded choice that catapults the awkward, bookish boy, “the kid who cries too easily and laughs too easily,” into the spotlight. “There are a thousand ways to be wanted, and this is his: to be amusing.” His gaffes include his Dolly Parton Halloween costume, choosing to impersonate the only African-American student in the school on the day his class is supposed to dress like one of the school’s seniors, and selecting Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” as the song he and a friend will lip synch in a school contest. The teacher who’s the object of his ardor, Miss Vincent, comes to his rescue there and at other critical points in the story, not least when he’s the victim of inexplicable and relentless bullying by two friends, and her affection for Kevin is sweetly reciprocated.
Invoking 1980s cultural totems like Huey Lewis and the News and Billy Joel and popular television shows like “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes”and Michael Landon’s “Highway to Heaven,”Brockmeier also does an excellent job anchoring his memoir in time without limiting its appeal only to those who came of age in that decade.
In his fiction, Brockmeier has shown he’s a versatile prose stylist, and he makes the transition to memoir without sacrificing that quality. He concludes the book’s first chapter with a vivid description of the first day of school through the eyes of an excited and slightly bewildered student. Twenty-one consecutive sentences begin with the word “the,” and yet each one feels fresh and alive. He has a special talent for painting word pictures of sound, as in the lunchroom with its “popcorn of everyone’s voices, bursting and bursting and bursting,” or recalling the noise of students that “fills the hall like a flock of birds shotgunning out of a tree.” And could there be any more evocative description of the feeling of limitless freedom that accompanies the final day of school than this one:
“Thousands of glowing white specks dance over the grass, and tangles of honeysuckle rustle against the fence, and the shadows of the clouds are like the shadows water makes as it ripples over gravel.”
Brockmeier concludes this brief, lovely memoir with a scene of the sixth-graders paying a visit at the end of the school year to the same school he had entered nine months earlier. He sits in the bleachers watching them, “remembering what it was like. Thinking, Before you know it, nothing will be the same. Saying, You’re not me yet, but I’m still you.” Whether your experience of seventh grade took place five or 50 years ago, he’ll have you nodding with a wistful smile or wincing with a shiver of recognition as you relive those days in these pages.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on April 10, 2014