There is no shortage of the memoir-as-Bildungsroman, the coming-of-age of the writer in the world. Works Cited: An Alphabetical Odyssey of Mayhem and Misbehavior (University of Nebraska Press, $16.95) by Brandon R. Schrand contains all the familiar tropes: copious drinking and drugging, college hijinks, fraternity debauchery, sexual promiscuity, rebellion against authority, classroom failure and embarrassment, all repeated ad nauseam. What sets this book apart is some beautiful writing. That Schrand is gifted and that he survived his best attempts to remain a child in a man’s body are never in question. Willingly, we go on his journey with him, riding the twists and turns of the story like passengers on a train snaking through the difficult terrain of a challenging country, a symbolism the writer, himself, uses in the book.
What really sets this memoir apart is its organizational structure. Schrand eschews chronological order and instead, compiles his story as a bibliography of the books that changed, or didn’t change, or changed only years later, his life. For the most part, this works, but occasionally, the cited book gets slighted for the drinking and debauchery. In other words, straighten out the narrative and it becomes like all memoirs of youthful indiscretion, even with the beautiful writing. Still, I found the unique organization a welcome change-up from the just-another-memoir-of-my-bad-boy days. One of the lines that resonates comes right at the start of the book, and explains the reason for the bibliographic organization: “…I acknowledge that books themselves cannot save your life. Not in any literal sense. But if I misread my ways into mayhem and misbehavior for so many years, I was able, finally, to read my way to some kind of safety. That journey is this story.” Those of us addicted to reading and writing love when books save lives, if only because we all have our own version of the book that saved us. That makes Schrand’s transition from royal screw-up to upstanding member of the writing world compelling.
He begins at the beginning, with his eccentric family life: stepfather and mother get stoned; grandparents run a hotel; and Schrand grows up in the wilds of Idaho, Utah and the arid deserts of the northwest United States with occasional trips to Arizona and other places with often dangerous and funny adventures. “Everything felt big to me,” he writes, “epic almost, and I matched the changing world I saw outside to the pictures in The Children’s Bible—pictures of flaming chariots racing through the skies, of Samson breaking the pillars, of Jesus walking on water.” Connecting to the Bible makes Schrand believe the world would eventually “go crazy like that.”
A central internal conflict for Schrand in the book is his desire to grow up while remaining stuck in the quicksand of his own immaturity. In the chapter connected to Mark Twain’s, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he writes: “Caught in that heartbreaking paradox of both wanting to be a man and never wanting to leave childhood, Huck was a boy like me who yearned to be a man unlike his father.” This introduces a number of false starts, dead ends, and misadventures on his road to being a successful husband, father and writer, and that feels real. Life is not a straight line; we all fall back many times before setting ourselves free. We see that clearly in Schrand’s writing in this book. The examination of these events, his failures, his betrayals of others, must have been difficult for him to write, and must be excruciating to read for those who were witnesses or suffered those betrayals. He takes pains to recognize the sacrifices of his wife, Kelli, who at one point in the story forces him to return to college and graduate while she rises at five a.m. to go clean toilets to make extra dollars to keep the family afloat.
Schrand’s writing contains the necessary healthy dose of self-deprecation. He lets the reader feel his shame and laugh at him and his antics. Yet, there is also a bit of a mirror reflection going on because his trials and tribulations, funny as some of them are, remain painfully recognizable. There is not a lot that is new here in his memoir, but he does tell the story with grace, humor, and beauty, organized in a Works Cited listing of the books that inspired him. In short, we can relate to his immaturity, his youthful blindness, his falling down. We wait for the promised redemption, and like most of these kinds of books, he delivers in the end. His journey is one of twists and turns, hills and valleys, all through the dark night of his misbehaved youth on out into the daylight of his maturity.