Soft school of hard knocks

LOST IN PLACE by Mark Salzman, Bloomsbury pounds 6.99
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The Independent Culture
SALZMAN's memoir of growing up in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in the mid-70s is the story of the eternal quest of the son to best his father. But it's also a story about America and suburbia set in a landscape we all think we know - a straight-arrow place of neatly trimmed lawns and spotless split-level homes, where over every garage hangs the angelic halo of a basketball hoop.

In the Salzman home, things are a little bit different. Dad, when he's not slouching through the 9-5 as a social worker, is gazing through his telescope or painting morose landscapes; Mom is downstairs practising the harpsichord. Upstairs, one of the kids is slipping exploding caps in his mother's cigarettes to remind her to stop smoking. In a few years Mark will stud the soil around his father's house plants with cannabis seeds, grow his hair down to his waist and listen to Pink Floyd while dressed in a "Nehrudelic" Indian-print shirt, but right now he's out in the woods, going through his Bruce Lee-inspired kung fu forms dressed in purple pyjamas and a bald wig.

The Salzmans are a little bit weird. Not totally, David-Lynch weird, but still well outside the comfort zone. In fact, one of the things this book does so well is to remind us just how conformist suburban America in the Seventies really was. There were only one or two ways to be really wild - one usually involved listening to terrible music while driving at high speed through a parking lot.

When you're 16 suburbia is a difficult place to escape - it feels like a soft prison of self-imposed uniformity. Fathers endlessly mow lawns and mothers make peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches in a reality-loop of interminable length. One way out is to become a Zen monk. Salzman reads the Tao Te Ching and its injunction to become "Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood", and believes that by mastering the secrets of the martial arts he can achieve happiness. He sets out to redeem his soul by submitting to the punishing routine of Sensei O'Keefe, local Kung Fu master. He gets kicked, bruised and bashed and begins to assemble a shaky version of self- identity based on the Sensei's violent world view. When posterity seems a drag, you head for the school of hard knocks.

Odd and off-beat childhoods are the norm in this age of the confessional memoir. But Sensei O'Keefe is such a vivid character, and the comic details of the martial arts experience are so well observed, that the book never falls into the trap either of sentimentality or nostalgia. Earnestness is undercut by a strong current of sardonic wit, and self-knowledge keeps the journey towards self-discovery lean and funny.

The saving grace is Dad. While his son flirts with the Sensei's beliefs about "learning to die well", crashes the car and drops out of school, his father - although weighed down by the conventional luggage of the everyday - turns out to possess a mordant but workable philosophy. As in the best bildungsroman, the journey, in the end, comes full circle.