by Matthew James Babcock
Educe Press, 2017
204 Pages, $15.84
Review by Brian Wallace Baker
“I remember 1978 because it was the year Mrs. Turnipseed, my favorite teacher, touched herself in front of our class.” So begins Heterodoxologies (Educe Press, 2017), an essay collection by Matthew James Babcock. It’s the kind of beginning that takes you by surprise. You’re not sure if you should laugh or cringe. You only know you want to keep reading.
And it’s not just the beginning that surprises. From surreal descriptions of a dream, to a letter to Jane Austen, from the poetry of wrestling, to a garage band that almost made it out of the garage—reading each essay is like opening a wrapped gift, not knowing what will be inside. Babcock’s eclectic subject matter, humor, variations in length and style, and the way he persistently plays with language all contribute to this effect. It’s a fun, quirky read, one that examines real human issues without taking itself too seriously.
The first essay in the collection is “The Handicap Bug,” which braids together the narratives of a scabies outbreak at Babcock’s elementary school with his memories of different classmates who were misunderstood and mistreated by a well-meaning Mrs. Turnipseed. Babcock uses these narratives to talk about memory. “The memory mite bores deep,” he says. Though he didn’t contract scabies, he caught a different disease—the poignant memories of childhood experience. When he runs into Mrs. Turnipseed as an adult, he feels as if “a squadron of tiny bugs paratrooped through my veins, racing down my tendons on razor ice-skates, jamming pitchforks in the breaker box of my cerebral cortex.” Babcock shows us that old regrets and resentments can be tinged with nostalgia, and vice versa.
This same essay offers plenty of examples of the collection’s playfulness:
“In reality, only three or four of Jefferson Elementary’s unwashed scamps ended up showing signs of infestation. But to hear the teachers talk you would have sworn Mothra had parked a death-ray tank outside. Parents phoned in. Kids cried and went AWOL at recess. Nurses and doctors worried from room to room, slinging clipboards like riot shields.”
While Babcock’s work is not overly saturated with pop culture references, this well-placed reference to a cheesy movie monster helps us see the story through the eyes of a third-grader in the 1970s. It’s an example of Babcock’s attention to detail. Everything is there for a reason. Often it’s to make you laugh, but there’s usually more to it than that. Even while cracking jokes, he’s developing characters, painting scenes, and inviting you to see the truth and wonder around you, even in the ordinary, even in the painful.
“My Nazi Dagger” is a courageously personal essay about taking his grandfather’s WWII relic to get appraised, but the heart of the story is his struggle to help his teenage daughter, who suffers from a debilitating mental illness. Through years of watching his daughter struggle with strange behaviors and volatile emotions, “[he]went from detached to enraged to destroyed.” The Nazi Dagger represents what he wishes for his daughter and what he is willing to pay for a successful treatment: “In the trunk of my most secret and desperate heart,” he says, “I wondered if the money from my dagger might buy Shayla a miracle.” But there are no obvious miracles, only the realization that fathers can’t save their children from their pain. Though I’m not a father myself, I’m able to taste the desperation and hope Babcock feels in his struggle to help his daughter.
Like any good essayist, Babcock crafts his personal experiences into pieces that speak to universal themes, and he does this in ways that feel fresh. As public awareness of mental illness has risen, many first-person stories have emerged about people’s emotional battles. In “My Nazi Dagger,” Babcock gives us the perspective of the parent, who fights his own battles alongside his child.
We see Babcock’s use of theme again in “Sunshine Boy,” which chronicles some of his romantic escapades and ultimately comments on virginity, inviting us to take another look at a concept that is often dismissed as outdated and unnecessary:
“But what if virginity is a tram to a loftier summit, a swap for a kiss from the celestial? What if those Malvolios who cross-garter big red X’s across their no fly zones are just seduced by some grander enlightenment, some supernal partner with insatiable star power? What valentines Mother Theresa must have mailed to God. What marginalia Mary might have left in her unwritten diaries.”
The final send-off is a lengthy piece about Babcock’s misadventures as a kid breakdancer in rural Idaho, including a brief encounter with the King of Pop himself. If the book wasn’t already eccentric enough, the penultimate section in this essay is a rap nearly two pages long. It’s the kind of thing that could come across as gimmicky, but Babcock has played with language and storytelling so effectively throughout the book that by the time you approach the end, you allow it. What’s more, his rap provides a surprisingly effective character sketch of the writer, as well as a summary of the essay and of the book as a whole:
“Storytime! No reason or rhyme, just a small-town kid big on hard times. A hometown Joe, from Idaho, yo! . . . Uh, that’s right, rewind! Take it back to find, you wake up in the world and—whoa!—it’s unkind. So, nothing’s changed, gone strange, deranged! Now, you’re runnin’ and you’re gunnin’ for unlimited range! . . . I’m M. J. B. I’m the older me. I got a wife, five kids, and a PhD. . . . Gotta think good times, gotta face the bad, from sad seventh-grader to full-time dad.”
I’ve read books before that, like Heterodoxologies, play with language and combine humor with insight, yet somehow none of them serve as an accurate comparison. As a book, Heterodoxologies is best understood by its disparate parts, which work in concert with each other to create something truly unique. Together, they speak to the rich diversity and uniqueness of a person, such as Babcock, a breakdancer turned English professor dad. And as the book’s title might suggest, this collection is about giving life our full devotion, even the parts that are mundane, unorthodox, or just plain heart-breaking.