Criticism — From the September 2014 issue

The Tale of the Tape

The miracle of Straight Life

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This is an essay about an autobiography (Laurie Pepper’s ART: Why I Stuck With a Junkie Jazz Man) that is in large part about the creation of another autobiography (Art Pepper’s Straight Life), and I’m going to open with an excerpt from yet another autobiography (my own, title to come): I spent my entire ninth year reading Straight Life. I stole my bebop-fanatic father’s copy because I liked the cover, how Art looked on it — that handsome face, those flashy clothes — and every night I took the book from its hiding place under my mattress. Each page was oh boy and oh wow. (His mom tried to abort him by doing what? He put his tongue where on that teenaged groupie? Pouring shoe glue on a rag and sniffing it — that was fun?) And as soon as I came to the end, I’d flip right back to the beginning. At some point I moved on to Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitters Club — books more in keeping with my identity as a fourth-grade girl with a canopy bed and a Schwinn ten-speed living in one of Boston’s leafier suburbs. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that Straight Life and I had a second run-in. I was helping my parents pack up their house when I found it on the dusty bottom shelf of a corner bookcase and slipped it into my bag instead of into a U-Haul box. I took it back to my apartment, where I stayed up the entire night rereading. It was oh boy and oh wow all over again.

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  • tmc

    Great piece! Like Laurie P, you are literary equivalent of jazz musician. Love the rhythm throughout this piece, the slangy phrasings — “She and Art met squalid … ” — never heard that one, but it’s so evocative. And that line “His girlfriend had dumped him at his mother’s door,
    and his mother had refused to open it” is one of best I’ve read in long time. Brilliant. As Isaac Babel said, “No iron spike can pierce a human heart like a period in the right place.” And you know where to put the periods. I’m ordering both of Laurie’s books asap. Thanks for making my day, hell, my week.

  • JMerchant

    I agree with the previous comment. I have been reading Harper’s for two decades and this might be the best article yet in a magazine with consistently superb writing. The “writing” of Straight Life, capturing the cadence of Art Pepper’s speech and his idiom as well as the devotion of one person to another’s art (“both uppercase and lower”). Lili Anolik’s own voice is there, subjugated to the story of Art and Laurie and, by doing so, their narrative is the better for it. Jazz. lyricism, redemption, language, and so on. Thank you.

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