Jonathan Yardley Child­hood in a mi­nor key

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CHIN­ABERRY SIDE­WALKS By Rod­ney Crow­ell Knopf. 259 pp. $24.95

Rod­ney Crow­ell’s mem­oir of his boy­hood in south­east Texas is a won­der: wist­ful and pro­fane, heart­break­ing and hi­lar­i­ous, lov­ing and an­gry, proud and self-lac­er­at­ing. Best known as a com­poser and per­former of coun­try and folk mu­sic, Crow­ell emerges here as a prose stylist of en­ergy and dis­tinc­tive­ness, a gifted sto­ry­teller who has, as it hap­pens, an un­com­monly in­ter­est­ing and deeply Amer­i­can story to tell.

There’s a co­in­ci­dence here that can’t go un­men­tioned. Be­tween 1979 and 1992 Crow­ell was mar­ried to Rosanne Cash, her­self a com­poser and singer of tal­ent and ac­com­plish­ment who is, of course, the daugh­ter of Johnny

Cash. The mar­riage ended in what he calls “our self­ishly am­i­ca­ble and thor­oughly mod­ern divorce.” “Ul­ti­mately,” she says, “we both had to grow up, and we rec­og­nized that we couldn’t do it to­gether.” But they’ve re­mained friendly, they per­form to­gether from time to time, and now they are au­thors of two of the loveli­est mem­oirs to come my way in re­cent years. Her

“Com­posed” was pub­lished last year, and now we have his “Chin­aberry Side­walks.”

The chin­aberry is a warmweather shade tree that was brought to the United States a cou­ple of cen­turies ago and has flour­ished in the South. It doesn’t ap­pear to have any par­tic­u­lar aes­thetic or botan­i­cal dis­tinc­tion, but in the spring of 1958, when Crow­ell was 8 years old, his mother, Cauzette Crow­ell, planted three china berries along the side­walk in front of their house in Jac­into City, a “white-trash gar­den spot” a few miles due east of Hous­ton. “Lack­ing imag­i­na­tion to match our in­dus­tri­ous­ness,” Crow­ell writes, “my mother and I named the trees J.W., Cauzette, and Rod­ney. Per­haps it was the in­tox­i­ca­tion of ac­com­plish­ment that prompted us to chris­ten the trees with our own names, or maybe the trees sym­bol­ized for the two of us a new chap­ter in our fam­ily his­tory, in which case we wanted our names dis­played front and cen­ter. Ei­ther way, our buoy­ancy was short-lived.”

That was scarcely sur­pris­ing, given that buoy­ancy — or any other form of hap­pi­ness — was an in­fre­quent vis­i­tor to the house on Nor­vic Street or any of the other shacks the Crow­ells lived in dur­ing Rod­ney’s youth. J.R. and Cauzette waged an “on­go­ing war of hard words and phys­i­cal abuse” and strug­gled against a “crip­pling sense of dis­en­ti­tle­ment,” and “ his ten­dency to­ward un­sub­stan­ti­ated cock­i­ness and her pin­prick pre­ci­sion in de­liv­er­ing the right words at the wrong time [made] them dou­bly vul­ner­a­ble to the bub­ble-burst­ing rifts that dis­tin­guish their mar­riage.”

Mar­ried in In­di­ana in 1942, J.W. and Cauzette made their way to Texas and some­how man­aged “ to go from a one-room log cabin with a dirt floor to the thresh­old of some spiffy new cracker-box palace in twelve short years,” in a hous­ing devel­op­ment of “cookie-cut­ter bun­ga­lows whose poor work­man­ship, lack of imag­i­na­tion, and cheap ma­te­rial des­tined them for an early demise.” All the more so in the Crow­ells’ case:

“Among the more crip­pling side ef­fects ofmy par­ents’ dis­en­ti­tle­ment was a dirt-poor sense of them­selves that made them far bet­ter suited for the main­te­nance of prop­erty not their own — par­tic­u­larly my fa­ther, whose math­e­mat­i­cal wizardry and car­pen­try skills emerged only when he was em­ployed by a third party, prefer­ably at be­low min­i­mum wage.”

The $6,000 house, “es­sen­tially a tarpa­per shack,” steadily be­came a wreck, es­pe­cially when Hur­ri­cane Carla thun­dered through in 1961. Holes ap­peared in the roof, but J.W. de­clined to fix them, “ hold­ing the opin­ion that a cook­ing pan and a wash pot — or three cook­ing pans and a bucket — were a bet­ter so­lu­tion to a leak­ing roof than need­less re­pair.” In the kitchen, “sheetrock hung from the . . . ceil­ing like pa­pier-mâché sta­lac­tites.” All of which just made it eas­ier for south­east Texas’s mos­qui­toes and cock­roaches to gain en­try, which they did in hordes.

J.W. Crow­ell was a sin­gu­lar char­ac­ter. He drank as least as much as he worked, and when he was drunk he could be any­thing from sen­ti­men­tal to abu­sive. He “craved at­ten­tion and preened af­ter ev­ery ooh and aah he ever got.” There was a “ thin line be­tween his heart­less in­sen­si­tiv­ity and harm­less self-ab­sorp­tion.” And: “His Don Quixote com­mit­ment to hare­brained no­tions was one of the things I loved most about him.”

As for Cauzette, her “switches from Pen­te­costal purist to beer­guz­zling shrew” were a source of as­ton­ish­ment to her son, as were the end­less af­flic­tions life vis­ited upon her, among them — dur­ing her early years — “po­lio, acute dyslexia, epilepsy, the sud­den death of an in­fant son, and a sub­se­quent case of whacked-out nerves.” She dragged Rod­ney to church ev­ery Sun­day: “Hat­ing these holy-rolling, speak­ing-in-un­known-tongues free-for-alls she loves so well, I do my best to make the trip more mis­er­able than it al­ready is. It’s a tes­ta­ment to her faith in an an­gry and kind and venge­ful and lov­ing God that she sees this two-mile slog with her son kick­ing and scream­ing as a small price to pay for sal­va­tion.”

It’s a mea­sure of the sub­tlety that Crow­ell brings to his por­trait of his par­ents that he si­mul­ta­ne­ously is ap­palled by them and deeply loves them. Af­ter set­ting forth chap­ter and verse about his fa­ther’s fail­ings and fail­ures, he stops to say: “By now I hope it’s clear that apart from his man han­dling my mother, I idol­ized my fa­ther and had learned at an early age to view his frag­ile self-imag­in­ings with be­mused de­tach­ment.” Com­ing to terms with his mother took longer, in large part be­cause of his dis­taste for her fevered reli­gios­ity, but af­ter his fa­ther’s death at age 65 — “Call it maudlin, ma­nip­u­la­tive, or sim­ple­minded, but as I see it he died of a bro­ken heart” — she be­came close to him and was adored by his daugh­ters. The book’s last two chap­ters, in which he de­scribes each of his par­ent’s last days, are deeply mov­ing and filled with love.

Love, in the end, is what “Chin­aberry Side­walks” is re­ally about. “As a boy my fa­vorite place in the world wasmy grand­mother’s apron-cov­ered lap,” Crow­ell writes. “Rock­ing on her lap and lis­ten­ing [on the ra­dio] to a live Carter Fam­ily per­for­mance, I re­mem­ber know­ing for the first time that I was loved. In time I came to un­der­stand the na­ture of her love as be­ing part of an even greater love, one that loved my grand­mother for lov­ing me.” Later, there was a shoe-shine man known as Spit-Shine Char­lie, who be­friended the boy and showed him an­other kind of love. His grand­mother and Char­lie died “within a year and a half of each other.” Crow­ell con­tin­ues:

“ Their deaths trig­gered a pro­longed pe­riod of muted lone­li­ness that lasted un­til the birth ofmy chil­dren. And with the ar­rival of each ofmy daugh­ters, the abil­ity to love with­out ex­pec­ta­tion came bub­bling slowly from the for­got­ten depths of who I was when I first crawled up inmy grand­mother’s lap. Thanks to the abused wife of a share­crop farmer, a crip­pled shoeshine man, and four lit­tle girls, I was able to emerge from the dark for­est of an an­gry heart into the light of love that will for­ever ex­ist be­tween my par­ents and me.”

This is the emo­tional and the­matic core of “ Chin­aberry Side­walks,” but there is much more to it, much of it up­roar­i­ous or mov­ing in dif­fer­ent ways: bois­ter­ous small-town boys mak­ing mis­chief, Tom Sawyers and Huck Finns with cuss words added; see­ing and hear­ing Hank Wil­liams two weeks be­fore his death; a spec­tac­u­lar show by Jerry Lee Lewis (“Raw sex­ual en­ergy and death-de­fy­ing au­dac­ity”), fol­lowed im­me­di­ately by an un­for­get­table one by Johnny Cash, who “spoke the lan­guage of com­mon peo­ple with un­com­mon elo­quence.” That, of course, is ex­actly what Rod­ney Crow­ell has done in this splen­did book.

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