“First French kiss and Other Traumas” by Adam Bagdasarian is really and truly about a boy coming of age and the relationship he has with his larger-than-life father.
While I liked all the stories, the ending really got me. SPOILER ALERT!
He retells the story of how his father passes away in the second to last story called “Over and Out”. Then, in the last story, he revisits something he wrote about earlier in the book: The summer he was “tricked” by his father into working on the family vineyard out in Fresno, CA. In the earlier piece, he complains about the grueling work and how he was ready to stand up to his father and convince him to pay him 5 times more than the minimum wage (and he was currently getting less). However, he, ultimately, chickens out. So in the last piece, he focuses on a specific moment in that summer out in Fresno when he was to paint the underbelly of a water pump and was just “too damned tired.” As he contemplates whether or not he should do it, he thinks about how his father probably wants him to do this near-impossible, difficult task and his own desire to do the best job and how this all was the theme of his life and of his life with his father: “I wanted to be the best person I could be too, but I didn’t want to die doing it” (132). That quote sums up the relationship and foreshadows how his father does eventually die.
In the Epilogue he reflects further on his father’s workaholic high standards and realizes that he, instead of judging his dad, needs to be grateful: “Looking back, I realize that if he had been the kind of man who always allowed himself the luxury of enjoying the company of his sons, the sight and smell of his vineyard, and three quarters of a water pump, I would ever have finished this book.” (134). I am hoping that I can think this way about my own father. That, maybe, somewhere in my own father’s insane approach to parenting, somewhere I may find a slice of insight and meaning to my own life instead of just tragedy.
This book makes you long for your childhood and agonize over your youth. It made me think of the old neighborhood where I grew up, of my own “death” in the family that changed my life– my parents’ divorce and the sale of my childhood home. Each story was a vignette in the narrator’s life. But he chose to switch point of view at times, which created a feeling of fiction and distance. The “through line” was as the title promises, ‘trauma’, and it came in the form of many firsts, like a first kiss or the first time getting beat up but also included the death of his father when he was 17. It’s funny and sad. He leaves certain specific details out because I think if he included them, it would distract the story and focus on him. We never learn exactly what his father did for a living, which had something to do with show business and vineyards. Also we never learn why and how the dad dies, just that he becomes ill and doesn’t wake up one morning.
The focus is on the narrator all the way through. It truly seems like an autobiographical version of a fictional childhood. As the Kirkus Review said, “The author recounts humorous, sad, traumatic, romantic and confusing episodes in a fictional childhood” autobiographical short story collection”
If I were to ever write a memoir, it would be in the same style and approach as Bagdasarian. But, frankly, I don’t find my real life that interesting!