Though five volumes of poetry and his award-winning memoir, Heaven's Coast, Mark Doty has produced one of the most important bodies of work in contemporary literature. In his powerful new autobiography, Firebird, Doty tells the story of a ten-year-old in a top hat, cane, and red chiffon scarf, interrupted while belting out Judy Garland's "Get Happy" by his alarmed mother at the bedroom door, exclaiming, "Son, you're a boy!"
A self-confessed "chubby smart bookish sissy with glasses and a Southern accent," Mark Doty grew up on the move, the family following his father's engineering work across America--from Memphis to Tucson, Florida to California. With Doty's rebellious sister already heading down a road that will bring her more than the usual share of teenage troubles, and his parents bedazzled by their own isolate disappointments, Firebird presents us with a heroic little boy who has quite enough worries without discovering that his dawning sexuality is The Wrong One. Attracted not to baseball gloves or space travel but to textiles and opera, horror movies and free-form dance, he finds that his confusion and fear are shared by those around him as he tries to make his way into the world to the sound of Petula Clark singing "Downtown."
A heartbreaking comedy of one family's dissolution through the corrosive powers of alcohol, sorrow, and thwarted desire, Firebird is also a wry evocation of childhood's pleasures and terrors, and a comic tour of suburban American life in the fifties and sixties. Lyrical and shattering at once, alive with vivid characters and a beauty of language and detail that are the hallmarks of Doty's miraculous prose, Firebird is unsparingly truthful and compassionate, a testament to how it is possible to save oneself through the transformative power of art.
I am standing paralyzed by what I've done, there's a rush and roar from the direction of the living room, my father rising from the couch, he's coming down the hall, I'm afraid he's going to spank me, I remember the last time, the humiliation of it, him pulling my pants down on the porch and whaling me, his red face filled up with blood and rage, striking at me because what have I done? Now I've done something plain and sharply lit like the big shards of glass on the floor...It's clear from the start that the author's home life was not happy. His father's job with the Army Corps of Engineers kept the family crisscrossing the country; his older sister got pregnant at 17--"these girls knew what they were doing, these girls married to get out"--and ended up, eventually, in prison; and his mother, a frustrated artist, sank eventually into depression and alcoholism. As if growing up in this family during the 1950s and '60s weren't difficult enough, Doty's homosexuality provided additional anguish. A confrontation over his long hair led to a humiliating scene at a barbershop where Doty's father had dragged him and ended up with his attempted suicide at the age of 14. There are plenty more heart-wrenching episodes like this, and at times you might wonder why you'd want to put yourself through the ordeal of reading about them. Doty himself seems aware of this. "Why tell a story like this, who wants to read it?" he demands near the end of the book, then responds, "Even sad stories are company. And perhaps that's why you might read such a chronicle, to look into a companionable darkness that isn't yours." That may be one reason for reading Firebird; the other, undoubtedly, is Mark Doty's precise and lyrical prose, his acute perception, and his compassionate heart. --Alix Wilber