Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

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All Screwed Up by Steve Fellner; Benu Press, $16.95

Few people can say they had a mother who enjoyed shoplifting, Harlequin novels, and cursing – or a father who chose homelessness because he was bored with the stability of his humdrum existence. Steve Fellner's memoir All Screwed Up looks back on a childhood and adolescence spent living in a trailer permanently parked in Nowheresville, Illinois. Fellner's father coasts along the margins, working as a meter reader while his mother holds simultaneous McJobs to keep food on the table. Eventually his parents divorce, and Fellner's father embarks on his odyssey into homelessness.

Adopted as an infant, Fellner always knew he was poor. But it would be inaccurate to characterize his family as dysfunctional. The roles of the children were well and clearly defined, as were those of the parents. They did not, however, always play those roles to the best of their abilities. Dad was a philanderer; mom was a recovering alcoholic, crazy and brilliant in equal measure; and young Steve always knew he was gay. He presents the family unit as a paradigm of slovenly, lower-class obesity in the ubiquitous sweatpants-and-sweatshirt style of the Midwest.

Feller details his coming to terms with life, pulling himself out of poverty to move up the economic and social ladder through education. It is a bumpy ride, detailed over 56 chapters, each one rarely more than two pages in length. Along the way, the author's brother somewhat disappears, but Fellner's parents are vividly rendered.

Fellner employs an engaging prose style, both succinct and compelling. He convincingly recreates a childhood of quiet desperation, colored by poverty and the desire to become something more than he might first appear to the casual observer. The tone of the book is consistent, but timelines and continuity suffer from the combination of material previously published elsewhere, supplemented by new chapters. Fellner often strikes the same chord repeatedly, if not the same note.

Yet All Screwed Up's moving and heartfelt closing chapter, "The Confession," proves just how effective that note can be. Fellner's mother drags her son, a freshman, home from college, to confession. Over the priest's objection, she insists Fellner join her in the confessional; she then pours out her heart about the day she first brought her son home and drank herself into oblivion. As she passes out of consciousness, she knows she must teach her screaming baby how to depend on no one. Eventually, all by himself, he falls peacefully to sleep. The method behind this mother's madness is grounded in an often impractical love, and as Fellner's memoir establishes, her efforts were not lost on her son.

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