Don’t be misled by the cover to Mike Magnuson’s disarming memoir about growing up in Wisconsin, Lummox: The Evolution of a Man. The dust jacket photo of Magnuson’s ample gut in a snug shirt and his beefy hand clutching a bottle of Miller’s might lead readers to expect a goofy knockoff of Drew Carey’s Dirty Jokes and Beer. To be sure, there’s 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. Hollingsworth’s Men) at Florida State University and shares his mentor’s talent for illuminating with unsentimental compassion the lives of luckless blue collar boozers, smartass deadbeats, and brainy social misfits.
Lummox is narrated in the third person, but with a playful omniscience that never hinders Magnuson’s voice from shaping every sentence:
Mike Magnuson has just turned twenty. He stands five feet ten. Goes 230 pounds most days. His hair’s red and greasy and curly, prone to sticking out to the side as if he’s grabbed a 440-volt cable and can’t let go, and he’s 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 doesn’t give a hoot about much.
The story begins in 1983 and covers a five-year period in the author’s 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 school—the same school he once attended as a child—in 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 don’t-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. Clarence’s 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 he’s got no ears and no hair,” writes Magnuson. What remains of the boy’s 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 they’re sharing a doobie in the marshes. It ends tragically in a way that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading Lummox.
If Mike Magnuson has a blind spot as a writer, it’s 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 Women’s Studies programs (to which he can’t 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