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MEMOIR

Dealt One Hand, Playing Another : VERTIGO: A Memoir. By Louise DeSalvo (Dutton: $22.95, 288 pp.)

August 04, 1996|Carolyn See | Carolyn See is the author of "Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America." She is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review

How come there's this astonishing deluge of family memoirs--especially ones written by women? Perhaps it's because the world is full of material that can't easily be held by the form of the conventional novel; it's like trying to carry around half a dozen flatirons in a flimsy paper bag. The only form that will contain this unique, idiosyncratic material is the memoir, in which the author--with complete impunity--can fall back on that old authorial disclaimer: It really did happen that way; it actually did happen to me.

"I am beginning to write a novel," Louise DeSalvo recalls in "Vertigo," "but it's not really a novel because it is the story of my life and yet I don't know what form it should take. . . . I am, inescapably, an Italian American woman with origins in the middle class. I come from a people who, even now, seriously distrust educated women, who value family loyalty. The story I want to tell . . . is the unlikely narrative of how a working class Italian American girl became a critic and writer."

Maybe that's the story DeSalvo wants to tell, but a lot of others find their way into "Vertigo" as well. (More flatirons in the sturdy string bag of memoir.) There's the story of her mother's sadness, depression and eventual death; the story of her sister's depression, strangely seductive ways and eventual suicide. The scary, sketchy tales of her father's violence, bad temper and domestic imperiousness. The memories of her own rampant, rather wacky sexuality in high school--which she used as a weapon to break loose from the constricting domestic "script" she was supposed to follow as an Italian American girl.

DeSalvo begins this narrative in "present time." She's a professor and writer, married to a nice doctor, has two grown sons. She's a good homemaker and a fiendishly fine cook, making sure to tell the reader about "sauteed pork chops with Cajun spices, baby spinach with garlic and balsamic vinegar, and yams with candied ginger that I will cook tonight," and "roasted chicken stuffed with artichokes, roasted potatoes with rosemary and steamed asparagus." She's a high-achieving, bona fide, well-rounded woman. Yet she's staggering with--and in--depression.

The author is covered with hives and suffers panic attacks; she has trouble sleeping, she's been fainting and she's been hospitalized. The number of terrible things that have happened to her recently totals nine--but the three biggest are her mother's psychotic depression, her sister's suicide and her father's rage at her "for not being available" through these crises.

The only thing for her to do, DeSalvo concludes, is to write her way out of this panic and emptiness. She begins with her first memories--as a kid in a crowded Hoboken apartment, living with her mom while her dad and all the other dads are off fighting World War II.

The writing here is terrific. DeSalvo constructs an inviting, unlikely heaven made up of women and children who have their tenement world to themselves. She plays the days away. The kids and their moms break all the old boundaries and rip around through each other's dwellings, laughing and talking. It's existence seen as a cosmic picnic. Then the dads come home, reasserting their private territorial rights, slamming all the doors to all the apartments and yelling at their wives and kids until they shut up and stop having fun. Once again, the world is made safe for patriarchal "democracy," for brutish, humorless violence.

What's a woman/girl to do, the author wonders? Go crazy, get depressed or get out. But how do you get out from under the thumb of a person whose life is dedicated to having you pinned under his thumb? DeSalvo's mother gets out by going crazy and dying; her sister by going crazy and killing herself. DeSalvo escapes through the printed page, first by reading, then studying and finally writing. But can you really escape the hand that's been dealt you at birth?

Sadly, the second half of this memoir is not as riveting as the first. The "adult" DeSalvo is more circumspect than the child. Her father, so frightening in the first chapters, is scarcely seen in the last, and the suicidal sister needs quotes of her own. What are these people really like? By the end, the only two main characters seem to be DeSalvo and her dying mother, the only "plot point" the resolution of conflict between them. And that doesn't fully explain how "a working-class Italian American girl becomes a critic and writer."

Ultimately, it doesn't matter, because a memoir doesn't have to follow such rules. This is a highly subjective narrative of what it's like to grow up American, reject what's expected of you and then make your own fate. In the end, that's enough.

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