I'm grateful to my friend and fellow writer, Charley Kempthorne, for his thoughtful review of my book. It was published Sunday, December 24, 2017, in The Manhattan Mercury.
To be spifflicated is to be very drunk. Since this is a family memoir by a recovering alcoholic—more than 25 years sober — of his alcoholic grandparents and his father too, though he was not an alcoholic, to be spifflicated, ossified, or zozzled (lesser levels of intoxication, according to the author) are important words. All three terms are humorous terms for being drunk, and that is key too: because though this can’t by any stretch be called a memoir of a happy family, it’s a funny book, even laugh-out-loud hilarious at times. Alcoholics usually are very good at laughing at themselves. So it is with Spifflicated.
Yet it is a tragic story: a drinking man and his pregnant girlfriend of 19 marry, have a sometimes fun/sometimes harrowing honeymoon houseboat voyage down the Mississippi River and then go on to other adventures on a motorcycle heading to the American West. Here the man, Ellsworth, known as Ell, finds work, yet is drinking more and more, and showing himself to be utterly self-centered and even mean, carrying a bottle with him now most of the time. He works hard as a surveyor and in other construction work, is good at what he does, but more and more ignores his wife and baby boy whom he names Champ but really has nothing to do with caring for. When asked by his wife, Victoria, just when he is coming back from one of his forays, he answers sarcastically, “Sometime between now… and the end of time.”
The marriage gets worse. Eventually Victoria leaves and takes the growing boy with her. Her story is one of descending into alcoholism herself, working her way around the country waitressing and drinking and sleeping with strangers, one of whom beats her up and is chased from the house by the boy, now 14, who levels a shotgun at him. But the relationship between mother and son, which might have been close, deteriorates under her continued drinking and what the author calls a “revolving door” of husbands/lovers. When she marries one and moves with him to his hometown of Plainville, Kansas, she soon realizes she doesn’t care much for the town or the husband. She takes off on a pretext and leaves her son behind too.
But there’s more, lots more, and not all of it so downhill. Champ’s story is one of salvaging his life amidst the ruins of his early childhood. It’s a remarkable story by a really fine storyteller — funny as much because the author/narrator himself sees the world as essentially comic as for any other reason.
The author is a former journalist and the book is carefully researched so that the various settings are entirely believable — Ell working at the Grand Coulee Dam project, Victoria working in various restaurants as a waitress, Champ/Jim working in a gas station and going to high school in tiny Plainville, being helped along by a wealthy oil man whose daughter he falls in love with.
Matson knows his places and his people. It might be something as simple as a bottle opener on the wall of Champ’s ratty house in the poor part of town where he lives after his mother has departed that is memorialized as “a heavy-duty cast-iron bottle opener… screwed to the wall above the kitchen sink… in raised, relief cursive script above the business end were the words ‘Drink Coca-Cola.’” Or it’s a customer in one of the restaurants where Victoria works ordering “cowboy coffee” (i.e., coffee with whiskey in it) or it’s the actual, verbatim log entries of the houseboat trip down the Mississippi by the young bride.
The author re-creates a world in which real characters live… and we care about them. These aren’t nice people — with the exception of Champ’s father-in-law, Victor Ordway, and his daughter, Gera, but they are not unlikeable. Even Ell, at his worst when he is about to backhand his young son in order to “give him something to cry about,” even then, the writer has endowed his characters with such humanity that they are somehow forgiven by the reader as they act out their inevitable roles.
The redeeming part of the story is the final one. In the last years of Champ/Jim’s life, father and son collaborate on reconstructing the family’s life. This is exposition, but even so, it makes for a satisfying conclusion.
The book deserves a national audience among those interested in addiction recovery, family memoirs and general readers who love a great story. Mike Matson is Manhattan born and Kansas bred. He is one of our best, and I hope we see more memoir or creative non-fiction from him.
Charley Kempthorne, formerly of Manhattan, now lives in Olympia, Washington, where with his wife, June, he edits and publishes LifeStory Journal.