Book Review - Kevin Sampsell lives out of a suitcase in A Common Pornography
There are no pictures of anything "BARELY LEGAL," "XXX," "ADULT," or "SHAVED" in Kevin Sampsell's memoir, A Common Pornography. There wouldn't be any pictures in the book at all if a few wholesome family photos hadn't been added in a postscript by the publisher. If one was truly looking for "common pornography," you could do much better than this book.
The title isn't a total misnomer, however. As a teenager, Sampsell had more than a passing interest in pornography; he had a whole suitcase full of it. "The suitcase was greenish blue – the aged color of flat turquoise. Square and heavy. Two metal latches kept it shut. ... The suitcase, for me in the eighties, served as a 'best of' fantasy portal. ... because I was accumulating too many magazines to hide, I started to cut out just my favorite images. It was like clipping coupons."
That suitcase, a sea of disconnected images floating within it, is a rough metaphor for Sampsell's memoir. The 200-page book is composed mostly of single-page chapters, stray vignettes often unrelated to the chapter immediately before or after it. As you might imagine teenage Kevin Sampsell pulling single images from his fantasy portal, you can also imagine the writer Kevin Sampsell digging through his suitcase of memory for these snapshots of his life.
Sampsell is adept at creating arrangements of memory in a readable but unexpected manner, probably in no small part due to his experience as an editor and publisher. Since 1990, Sampsell has run Future Tense Books, a small press that publishes emerging authors, including a forthcoming book by Atlanta's Jamie Iredell.
A Common Pornography's first chapters reveal a tumultuous family life. Sampsell's mother had a number of children and husbands before settling down with the author's father, an angry and occasionally violent man who, at least once, sexually abused his half-sister Elinda. Yet, the portrait of Sampsell's adolescence that emerges is not marked by the misery and struggle one might expect. "I did not know about what happened between Elinda and Dad until the day after his funeral," he explains.
The difference of knowledge between the adult writer Sampsell and his younger self creates a distinct tension in the text. Some chapters display a youthful innocence, such as one that begins, "I thought Kennewick was the ideal place to grow up," while the reader understands that this adolescence is anything but ideal.
Occasionally, Sampsell detaches himself entirely, not letting on about how he felt about a situation at any age. An entire chapter titled "Vibrator" reads, "Dad gave me a vibrator once. Sort of oval-shaped. He gave it to me so I could wrap it and give it to Mom as a birthday present. Later, they kept it in a drawer by the bed. Then, shortly after, they slept in separate beds." Without an ounce of sentimentality, we're left with a hauntingly bizarre image, one that sticks in your mind in the way that events fascinate children too young to understand them.
Sampsell emerges from this family life not unscathed, but at least understanding. The book strays from the fractured format in its final pages, switching to a more coherent, nearly summarized narrative. It's less poetic than the detached arrangement of vignettes, but it's also a sign that Sampsell finally understands his own story, that he can make sense of his own jumbled suitcase of snapshots.