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Lummox: The Evolution of a Man
Dont be misled by the cover to
Mike Magnusons disarming memoir about growing up in Wisconsin, Lummox: The Evolution of a Man. The dust jacket
photo of Magnusons ample gut in a snug shirt and his beefy hand clutching a bottle
of Millers might lead readers to expect a goofy knockoff of Drew Careys Dirty Jokes and Beer. To be sure, theres
no shortage of dirty jokes and beer in the pages of Lummox.
But make no mistake: this is a literate and soulful memoir by a talented writer. Magnuson,
thirty-eight years old, teaches creative writing at Southern Illinois University and has
two well-received novels to his credit, The Right Man for the Job (1997) and The Fire Gospels (1998). His work is
distinctive for its sensitivity to working class despair and the agonizing vicissitudes of
sexual hostility. He studied under Padgett Powell (Edisto, Mrs. Hollingsworths Men) at Florida State
University and shares his mentors talent for illuminating with unsentimental
compassion the lives of luckless blue collar boozers, smartass deadbeats, and brainy
Lummox is narrated in the third person, but with a playful omniscience that never hinders Magnusons voice from shaping every sentence:
Mike Magnuson has just turned twenty. He stands five feet ten. Goes 230 pounds most days. His hairs red and greasy and curly, prone to sticking out to the side as if hes grabbed a 440-volt cable and cant let go, and hes got a big red beard that he keeps big to cover the zits that grow on his chin like buboes. What else? Oh, and he doesnt give a hoot about much.
The story begins in 1983 and
covers a five-year period in the authors life up to his mid-twenties. It was a time,
he says, of wildness and turbulence and unpredictability. Two friends will
attempt suicide during the course of the book. Magnuson drops out of the University of
Wisconsin, works factory jobs, drinks beer nightly in barrooms and smokes pot in
alleyways. For several months he literally makes his home in the music room of an
abandoned elementary schoolthe same school he once attended as a childin his
hometown of Menomonee Falls, a suburb of Milwaukee. A summer in the college town of Eau
Claire is spent living with a cadre of radical lesbian feminists (whom Magnuson
inadvertently offends by offering them a bottle of his parents favorite dinner wine:
Pere Patriarche). When he manages to land one of those nifty
dont-have-to-pay-it-back Pell Grants, he triumphantly returns to college and
completes his degree. But a B.A. in English Literature inspires nothing in the way of
future prospects, so he applies again for factory work and heads back to the barrooms.
At the heart of Lummox is a prickly Big Brother relationship between the author and a black teenager named Clarence Jeter. The young man is incarcerated at a reformatory where Magnuson is briefly employed as a child care worker. Clarences juvenile record includes robbing convenience stores and stealing cars, but his most distinguishing characteristic is a horribly scarred face, the result of his sister covering him in Sterno and setting him on fire when he was six years old. Now hes got no ears and no hair, writes Magnuson. What remains of the boys face is a wafflework of grafts. The wary friendship that develops between Magnuson and Clarence is surprisingly raucous and touching, like an inner city variation on the bond between Dave Eggers and his brother Toph in Eggers memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Magnuson arranges a day pass for Clarence and takes him hiking at nearby Half Moon Lake. Soon theyre sharing a doobie in the marshes. It ends tragically in a way that will stay with you long after youve finished reading Lummox.
If Mike Magnuson has a blind spot as a writer, its probably located in the vicinity of the massive chip he carries on his shoulder regarding academic feminists. The opening half-dozen pages of Lummox are taken up with a bilious diatribe against Womens Studies programs (to which he cant resist referring as Hag Studies). The notion that feminists on principle pose a castrating threat to the lummoxes of America seems a dubious argument at best. But never mind. Harboring dark suspicions about overeducated college chicks is a privilege born to lummoxes. Mike Magnuson should know. He wrote the book on lummoxes. And an otherwise smart and funny book it is.
- Bob Wake