A fat dog overjoyed with the plastic steak in its mouth. How Neil Young sounds like an alley cat. People-watching on the subway. Overheard snippets of conversations. The PR job, full of positive words, that’s starting to bring him down after fifteen years. The pills he must now take to maintain his body. An eight year relationship yet no shared apartment. These are some of single-sentence paragraphs of stray observations and journal notes that build up to a portrait of the uneasy stasis that is Clifford Chase’s life in New York City during the early months of 2001.
Set against the backdrop of two major national events—the beginning stages of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, and 9/11—The Tooth Fairy is a collection of interconnected essays that explore the family dynamics and romantic relationships Clifford struggles with during both time periods. Readers see how, as a twenty-something, Clifford struggles with his homosexuality as he graduates from college, moves from California to New York and starts a tumultuous relationship with a woman referred to as “E.” In the more recent past, he struggles to make the decision to place his aging parents in nursing home, assesses his relationship with his boyfriend John and learns new information about his deceased older brother Ken (who was the subject of Chase’s previous memoir, The Hurry-Up Song) after finally letting himself read Ken’s journals and speak to Ken’s friends. Clifford moves from indecisiveness to some certainty, even when that certainty means understanding when things can only be managed or when those things are out of his hands entirely, and learns that change comes both in the future and the past.
The Tooth Fairy requires a reader’s full attention, reading like a mix of Joe Brainard’s I Remember and a Twitter feed. “I write this in the hope that aphorism-like statements, when added one to another, might accrue to make some larger statement that will placate despair,” Chase writes. The disparate nature of the sentences is an effective representation of thought process of a mind inundated with information constantly. In the beginning, it’s up to the reader to draw the connections between things, like the fat dog and the alley-cat nature of Neil Young’s voice, and synthesize all the information into a larger picture.
The stylistic choice is most effective in the third section, “Am I Getting Warmer?” With each succeeding memory and observation—snippets from journal entries, from essays, from dreams, from professors’ notes—the reader sees a young Clifford perpetually orbiting around a firm understanding of his sexuality, set to the background of The B-52’s eponymous debut album. Chase unflinchingly captures closeted anxiety—a state of not grasping why you can’t access the love you are supposed to want, or at least not admitting to yourself why.
When the book returns to the more recent past, during the second half, it takes on a slightly more straightforward narrative. With the interjections of thoughts less frequent and the tone less hectic, the spaces allow the reader to focus and linger on each moment, image or thought. However, readers incited to read further based on the pace of earlier sections might be disappointed by dips into slightly more conventional storytelling. Pacing is also the issue with the fourth section, “As If,” which is no longer than other sections but ends up reading that way both due to nature of the relationship explored and because it follows the very compelling third section.
Chase does not rely solely on the formatting to carry the book. He is something of a photographer when it comes to imagery, choosing exactly the right thing to capture and the best words to do so. In “Hummingbird,” the 2nd section, Chase avoids clichés in recounting the aftermath of 9/11 by giving readers brief—but no less haunting—moments. One such sentence: “Each day Erin had to clean up the thin layer of ash that blew from Lower Manhattan into her windows in Brooklyn Heights.” Another evocative example is a scene from “Egypt, In One Sense”: “I had never seen a sunset like this: lacy rags in clumps, connected by ropes of cumulus, sometimes the ropes crossing at right angles, all of this in a single plane high above the Nile, above sand hills, like an orchestra of ragged clouds, rows of gray, dark gold, bright gold, all arranged around the conductor of the sun—”
Chase is all too aware that history and memory are never as straightforward as they seem and the structure of The Tooth Fairy revels in that fact. However, it is Chase’s honesty and sharp observations that make this memoir more than just a successful experiment with form. It is sure to inspire writers to tell their stories in new and imaginative ways.
The Tooth Fairy
By Clifford Chase
Overlook Press Hardcover, 9781468306958, 240 pp. February 2014