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I Was a Child: A Memoir


I Was a Child: A Memoir

Following on the success of his fellow New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast's 2014 graphic memoir, CAN'T WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING MORE PLEASANT?, Bruce Kaplan (known to readers of the magazine as "BEK"), has produced his own seriocomic reminiscence of growing up in suburban New Jersey in the '60s and '70s. Blending text with his own distinctive cartoons, Kaplan manages to hit every note on the emotional scale, careening from slapstick one moment to heartbreak the next. Though the details will differ, few readers won't be able to identify with at least some of the family foibles that Kaplan, with loving candor, exposes in this book.

Kaplan's mother went into labor at the 1964 New York World's Fair, and he's never lost his affinity for the "It's a Small World" ride at that event. We never learn the names of Kaplan's parents, but he portrays the pair as vaguely overwhelmed by life, in a marriage he admits he never understood, one that "almost seemed arranged." Kaplan's father abandoned his dream of writing novels for a job editing math textbooks, while one of his mother's favorite expressions was "I'm getting discombobulated," as she tried to cope with the task of raising Kaplan and his two older brothers. His parents believed in "just living with things," and when a repair was necessary, the medium of choice was Scotch tape.

"Blending text with his own distinctive cartoons, Kaplan manages to hit every note on the emotional scale, careening from slapstick one moment to heartbreak the next."

The limited practical skills of Kaplan's parents are best illustrated in the hilarious and characteristically economical account of his father's attempt to find his way to the Lincoln Tunnel to avoid traffic congestion at the Holland Tunnel on a trip from the family's home in New Jersey to visit Grandma Rose in Forest Hills, Queens. "No one in their right mind would ask him for guidance in any area," Kaplan writes of the incoherent pedestrian from whom his father sought directions, before abandoning that effort and driving away. "At that moment, I realized my parents really might not know how to do anything at all," he laments.

Many readers will identify with Kaplan's vague sense that somehow he had ended up in the wrong family. He admits he wasn't a big fan of the 1960s TV series “The Munsters,” save for the character Marilyn, "the only normal one among this group of creatures." Like Marilyn, Kaplan wonders, "How did I get put here with these people who aren't really people?" In one poignant memory, he describes looking at other families at a gas station stop during one of his family's annual two-week New England summer vacations ("We never missed a cavern"). "They seemed like real families and we seemed like we were pretending to be a real family" sums up the persistent longing that marked his childhood.

When he's not producing cartoons, Kaplan works as a TV writer and producer, with credits that include “Seinfeld”and HBO's “Girls.”The roots of his fascination with television surfaced early in his life, as he describes his love for the classic movies that ran continuously on two New York stations (Hitchcock's were among his favorites) and his affection for shows like “I Love Lucy”and “Maude,”a feeling so powerful he "wanted to crawl in the TV and stay there permanently." When his parents refused to purchase TV Guide, he used the first dollars of his allowance to buy his own copy each week. "I put them in boxes in the attic," he writes, "and would sit up there sometimes, lovingly rereading them." But the shows that magazine chronicled provided more than diversion or amusement, they reinforced his belief that it "just seemed like life was elsewhere."

Kaplan concludes the book with a few pages devoted to his parents' final illnesses and last days: "Both my parents clung to life at the end. As their bodies began to decompose, they resolutely refused to go. It was horrible to watch, yet in a way, it was amazing. I had never seen either of them fight for something before." Beginning with its dedication to "my parents, who tried," I WAS A CHILD's dominant tone is one of bemusement, not anger or sorrow. Kaplan recognizes that, for all the failings he catalogs with gentle, but unsparing, good humor, his parents succeeded in delivering him to adulthood intact and ready to achieve considerable personal success. They could have done much worse, and this book reveals that he knows, and appreciates, that fact.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on April 17, 2015

I Was a Child: A Memoir
by Bruce Eric Kaplan

  • Publication Date: April 12, 2016
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Blue Rider Press
  • ISBN-10: 0399183418
  • ISBN-13: 9780399183416