So let’s be brutally honest. If I were any kind of critic I would immediately launch into a long list of reasons why you should not bother reading Wade Rouse’s memoir America’s Boy. I’d tell you that it’s formulaic and that Rouse is just another writer engaged in the generally distasteful practice of turning a family tragedy into the centerpiece of a book destined for the half-price table.
But what I am is a reader. A hopeless, hardback-loving reader. And that is why I am so taken by America’s Boy.
I’m not going to kid you. If you were to pick up Rouse’s book — and the striking, coffee-table-ready cover ensures that you will — and read the front flap, you’d probably put it back on the shelf. You may well think you had already read it.
Wade Rouse was a young boy growing up in Middle America who never quite fit in. At the age of 5 he outfitted himself in his mother’s black-and-white, polka-dot bikini, a tinfoil crown and a sash and dubbed himself Miss Sugar Creek. While other boys in his hometown were trying to look like cowboys, Rouse spent much of junior high trying to feather his hair so he could look like Bobby Darrin. Frustrated by always living on the outside of things, Wade ”fills his time eating Little Debbie cakes and Cherry Mashes because becoming fat is more acceptable than being different.”
The summer before Rouse’s freshman year in high school his brother is killed in an accident and that sets into motion a series of events that, while it seems cold and a bit jaded to say so, are incredibly familiar to any reader of contemporary nonfiction.
So why, charming cover aside, would I tell you to read it?
Because Rouse is one of those writers who is becoming increasingly difficult to come by. He’s a storyteller and a memoirist in the best sense of the words.
His work is not the polished (one might actually say shellacked) prose that we see from more and more nonfiction writers. There is no veneer of writerly distance to his work. Reading Rouse’s memoir is more like sitting with a good friend and a cold beer, trading stories and remembering those things that may have been painful or tragic at the time, but must now be respected for what they are. The past. Our memories.
What sets America’s Boy apart is a joy that constantly presses up from under the text. True, Rouse sometimes tries a bit too hard to convince us he had a tough time growing up. He spends a little too much time trying to convince us of his outcast status. In the end, however, Rouse can’t help himself. The love he feels for his family and the summers they spent at his grandparents’ cabin on Sugar Creek shines out from the pages of America’s Boy. Even when the author tries to paint the setting of his childhood in bleak shades of dust and gray, there is a fondness in his writing, as well as a bright and welcome honesty.
It’s that truthfulness that makes America’s Boy a wonderful joy to read. Rouse is a memoirist who embraces the job he has chosen to do. He simply wants to share his story.
And that is something we readers are not treated to often enough.