It’s such a small thing—only a paragraph in Stephen Graham Jones’s Growing Up Dead In Texas—that took me back to West Salem Elementary School, a squat little structure built of beige brick set against a backdrop of rolling fields and farms, exactly one month before my sixth birthday. Perhaps it’s appropriate that I’m not sure if this particular memory is real or fabricated. I’m sure Jones would say it doesn’t matter.
Pay attention: Growing Up Dead in Texas is a novel by Stephen Graham Jones featuring a narrator named Stephen Graham Jones who is struggling to write a nonfiction account of a fire that destroyed both cotton fields and lives in his hometown of Greenwood, Texas. To be clear, Jones (the author) is writing fiction – no such fire ever occurred in Greenwood. Jones (the narrator) is not.
Imagine pitching that to your agent. You might get a blank stare. Or you might get a weary sigh and a gentle reminder that mainstream metafiction’s been dead for about a decade or so.
But before you write this all off as pretentious nonsense, consider what I’m about to tell you: this fictional account of a writer struggling to piece together a nonfictional account of why someone set a match to Greenwood’s cotton fields in 1985 is one of the truest, most honest depictions of the secrets, betrayals, and shared pasts that make every small town in America tick.
But that memory:
Here it is, true or not: we’ve filed into the cafeteria for lunch around 11:30 or so. It’s winter, but it’s not snowing. Everything outside is slush and no good for much of anything, snowman-wise. My tray is light green and heavy, but I don’t mind. It’s French bread pizza day, the best day. And, as if that wasn’t enough, one of the teachers had rolled a television in so we could all watch the Challenger take-off.
And here’s what Jones writes:
“In the hall, between the gyms that day, what we’re all watching, some of us crying, because some secret part of us is still sure we can be astronauts too, is Challenger, spread out across the sky falling, falling, falling, Michael Graham maybe going home that day after school and finding his old list from fourth grade, adding this to his list of things that have been taken away, and then letting that list go as well, across the field, a prayer of sorts for all of us.”
Growing Up Dead in Texas is peppered with nuggets like this, little snippets of what it meant to be alive and a child in the mid-80s.
Growing Up Dead in Texas is more than bittersweet nostalgia. It’s a mystery. It’s a fictional memoir that is somehow truer than any of the actual memoirs I’ve read recently. It’s a character study of Stephen Graham Jones (the narrator and the author) and a number of townspeople that the fire affects.
And it’s good. Really good. In 254 pages, we come to understand a town, its people, and the connections that run back generations. Connections that might give meaning to the fire that all but destroys the town’s cotton crop. But that fire could just as easily have been an accident, a careless cigarette butt cast aside in a momentary lapse of judgment.
And Jones does it in a voice that’s his own. Literally. He writes like he talks, like he’s right there on a bar stool next to you—the most interesting person who’s ever set foot in whatever roadside tavern or rundown honky-tonk you happen to be in.
Growing Up Dead in Texas is as much a puzzle as it is a memoir or mystery. How much of what Jones has written is true? Certainly, there was no cotton field fire in Greenwood, Texas in 1985, at least not that I could find. Both Jones (the narrator) and Jones (the author) are blurring the lines between fiction and their respective realities (which are, remember, different), and it’s all enough to make your head spin.
But it all could be true. And it might as well be.
Every single word of it.
Just as true as watching Challenger explode on a 27-inch television in a cold cafeteria in 1986 and not understanding what just happened, why some of the older kids and teachers are crying, and why I suddenly don’t want to eat what’s in front of me.