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The Trouble With being Born

The Trouble With Being Born

The Trouble with Being Born: A Novel
by Jeffrey DeShell

Quality Paper
Price: $18.00

E Book
Price: $9.99


Novel, memoir, and anti-memoir, The Trouble with Being Born depicts the lives of Frances and Joe, husband and wife. Told in their own alternating voices, they recall their lives, separately and together, and the divergent trajectories of their origins and aspirations.

Frances's story moves in reverse: beginning with her dementia in old age, her narrative moves backwards into lucidity, through a cruel and loveless marriage, the birth of her son Jeffrey, and into a childhood that she recalls fondly as a time of innocence and belonging.

Joe's memories begin in childhood, a bewildered boy struggling with poverty, racism, and isolation, and we watch him grow into a manhood fraught with wrong turns, rage, betrayals, and disappointment, caring in the end for the woman he has long mistreated.

The Trouble with Being Born is a stark meditation on memory and the struggle—both necessary and impossible—to remember.

"In his fourth book, Jeffrey DeShell takes on the challenge of writing from inside those familiar strangers whose lives led to his own: his parents. The elegant formal structure of The Trouble with Being Born organizes a thoughtful, heartfelt, and extraordinarily visual (indeed, sensual) querying of histories, subjectivities, and the narrative shapes we give to our lives."—Laura Mullen

"The Trouble with Being Born evokes the constricted egotism and materialistic desperation of America's mid-century. The DeShell family seems incomprehensible, spilling out everywhere as romantic fragments, bourgeois myths, the bric-a-brac of blocked transcendence and dogged calculation. I emerged from the reading with a powerful sense of words struggling, like the characters themselves, to organize contradictions into a life." —R. M. Berry

"In The Trouble with Being Born the parents trade riffs, mother and father telling their stories in short, staccato sentences. Jeffrey DeShell's writing of them gets under the skin, the way parents' "autobiographies" also live under their children's lives. DeShell is a daring, intelligent, hard-eyed, and tenderhearted writer, all of which is abundantly evident in his wonderful new novel." —Lynne Tillman


They've taken me to a house exactly like our house. I don't know why. I don't know what they're going to do. I'm frightened. This chair is like the chair in our house. The lamp, the carpet, the couch. I can see patterns in the couch. Boy's faces. And trees. I don't know why I'm here. I don't know what I've done.

They're downstairs. A bunch of boys and the older one, Joe, my husband. My husband is going to leave me. He's going to leave me and get a new wife. He's told me so. He's going to leave me here with the boys and get a new wife, a new Italian wife, and have lots of children. So he can have grandchildren. Grandchildren and children and new Italian wives lined up around the block. And I'll be stuck here in this house, looking out the window at all those people.

Someone is coming up the stairs. I'll pretend like I'm watching the news on tv. But the screen is dark, black. It's gone off and I don't remember how to turn it on. I'll close my eyes and pretend I'm sleeping. "Hello Frances. Open your eyes, we know you're awake." I open my eyes. Four boys are standing in front of me. One looks a little like Jeff, but the others all have red hair and freckles. They don't look exactly alike: they look more like brothers. They scare me. One of the redheads speaks.

"Can we see your underwear, Frances? Please?" I don't want to show them my underwear, but I'm frightened. I sit still and don't move. Sometimes they go away if I sit quiet. "Please, Frances, we want to see your underwear. If you don't show us your underwear, we'll tell you things. We'll tell you what Jeff has really been up to. Do you want to know what Jeff's been up to? Frances? Okay. He's been doing bad things. Lots of bad things. He doesn't have a job and he doesn't want one. All he wants to do is to smoke marijuana and screw girls. You know how he keeps moving around. That's because he keeps getting fired from those colleges for screwing all the girls. He doesn't tell you that does he? He doesn't tell you how many girls he screws and how he loves marijuana cigarettes. Sometimes he likes to puff on his marijuana cigarette while he screws a girl. That's why he doesn't have kids. Sometimes he even screws Mexican girls. Or black girls. He likes those the best."

That's not true. Jeff wouldn't do those things. You're lying.

"No Frances, I'm not lying. Let me show you how he does it." He moves toward me and puts his hand on my leg, next to my knee. I sit as quiet as a mouse. I can't see any of the other boys but I know they're there, watching. I can feel their hot breath on my shoulder. His hand feels cold on my leg. I don't like it. I close my eyes tight.

"First he puts his hand on the girl's leg. Then he bends down slowly, until he's on his knees, like this. Then he kisses the left knee." He kisses my left knee with his dry lips. I shudder and keep my eyes closed tight. "Then he takes a puff of his marijuana cigarette and kisses the other knee. You like this, don't you Frances." No, I don't like it. "Then he rubs the girls' legs. He starts down by the ankle and moves up with both hands. He moves up slowly, to get them all hot and bothered. First the knees, then higher. You're getting hot and bothered, aren't you Frances." I'm not getting hot and bothered. I want to scream or vomit. "When the girls are all hot and bothered from his hands rubbing up, not all the way up, he starts to kiss their legs on the inside of their thighs, barely above the knees. Like this. Oh Frances. You are getting hot and bothered, aren't you? You might as well admit it. We're not going to tell. You like this, don't you?"

I do not like this. I'm having a hard time breathing. Why are you doing this to me? I haven't done anything to you. Why are you hurting me like this?

"I'm not hurting you Frances. I'm just kissing you, and showing you how your son screws every girl he sees. You like to be kissed, admit it. You used to like to be kissed very much." I don't like to be kissed anymore. I'm old. Leave me alone.

"After he gets the girls all hot and bothered by rubbing and kissing their legs, he likes to have a look up there. It's usually dark up there, so he needs some light. Do you know what he uses for a light, Frances? Do you know what he uses to look all the way up there? A lamp. A simple living room lamp. Like this." I can feel heat on my legs. I open my eyes and see the boy on his knees with one of the living room lamps in his hand. It looks just like the one at home. He's taken off the shade and is smoking a cigarette and holding the lamp between my knees. I want to cross my legs but I'm afraid he'll burn me with the bulb. He takes a puff on his cigarette and leans over so that I can only see the lamp and the top of his red head. I can feel the heat from the lamp and my stomach feels queasy. I close my eyes and try to think of nice things like birds and trees and flowers but I can't. The room begins to spin and spin.

I open my eyes. The boys have gone. I'm alone. The lamps are on the end tables. Everything looks like our house but I know that it's not. The telephone is ringing. I get up and answer it.


"Hi mom, it's Jeffrey, your son."

I don't want to talk.