You’ve see us. Them. You’ve said to your sugar, What the hell do they think they’re doing? You’re on your stoop, your porch, your lanai, your whatever – and as we pass by you scrunch forward, down to car-window height. I’m gonna say something, you say, handing your honey the hose. Can’t have people just driving around like that, all slow and everything, rubbernecking. Can I help you? you ask. You shake your head as we speed away. Freaks.
But you’re just going to have to deal with it. We’re not burglars or pedophiles, missionaries or Hari Krishnas. We’re looking for a place to live. We need a home and we need one now.
It’s the middle of July already and it’s a desert wasteland here in Salt Lake City. For eight days running it’s been over a hundred degrees and the blacktop roads have begun to liquify – not to mention this three-year drought that a thousand inches of rain won’t fix. The air is so hot and brittle it feels as though my skin might shatter, and beyond that the lease on our apartment is up in six weeks and we just can’t rent again. Jenae and I have been together for six years and have lived in nearly as many apartments. And it’s not that Utah is exactly what we imagine when we say we want a place to call home, but it’ll have to do for now. Still, we have no mover, no moving date, no home loan for that matter, and no home upon which we can make an offer. (pgs. 5-6)
Memoir is a popular genre these days with readers finding authors describing survival in difficult childhoods, dealing with the death of loved ones, and encountering turning points in life. While Matthew Batt didn’t have an extremely difficult childhood, his memoir Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House into Home Sweet Home definitely covers the latter two areas. Matthew is a graduate student at the University of Utah and his wife, Jenae, works for a non-profit. They have been renters for years and feel the need to settle down especially since the couple has also dwelt with a few blows – deaths in the family and a cancer scare. The house they find is in the Sugarhouse neighborhood in Salt Lake City, and old neighborhood of tree-lined streets and smaller homes. The house they buy is a former rental house and most likely was a crack house (although the previous owner does not admit this). The memoir covers the search for the house, the buying process and the personal lives of the author and his wife.
We find out how he and his wife met and established their relationship, go through the death of his adoptive father as well as his grandmother. His mother has a cancer scare and his grandfather is seeing an unsuitable woman who may be interested in him solely for financial gain. All this is interspersed with a hilarious description of rehabbing a house where almost everything needs to be redone or replaced.
I was first drawn to Sugarhouse because of its setting. My family is from Salt Lake, my father lived in Sugarhouse when he was young, and I remember going to visit relatives in the neighborhood. And that part did not disappoint at all. The author worked in a restaurant I have eaten at, he drove streets I have driven, and he mentions places I know. This aspect of the book did give me a pleasant sense of nostalgia but a familiarity of the area is not necessary to enjoy this book.
This is the story of loss and gain. The story of a man is going through a “quarter-life” crisis and how he gets to the other side. A life laid bare with the house serving as the metaphor because you can’t just patch over the walls of a crack house nor can you patch over the cracks in a family. Both need to be dwelt with head on even if it is difficult, unpleasant, or you just plain don’t know how.
There are two distinct levels in this book: the house part and dealing with family part. Both are well done and both have different tones. The house parts are humorous and I felt for this poor man who had no idea of what he was doing. The second level had what I call “humor at the edge”. The family relationships described in the book are difficult, loving, maddening, and exasperating. Batt uses humor when writing about them but the humor has an edge, a pathos and like many human relationships, carry both the bitter and the sweet.
My only minor criticism is that at times, the transition between the two levels, didn’t seem to be as smooth as I would have wanted. It wasn’t a case of a jarring transition, just at times I would be in the flow of one level and then we would switch to the other level. With that said,d Batt has a way of description, both of action and of feeling. I fell in love with his dog with her love for the mailman and her dislike of car rides, “What percentage of car rides result in dog-oriented destinations? Practically none.” The author even nails why we need memoirs both to read and to write saying:
There are times when communication should be illegal, subjects absolutely forbidden. This was certainly one of them and I’m using it here as a dramatic expository backdrop for my own life story. I didn’t know what to do then, and I don’t know what to do now, but we need to believe in something – if not our actual lives as they are lived, then at least the stories we can distill from them. (pg 69)
While part about renovating the house was amusing, it was the parts about family that I really enjoyed. I found myself wanting to know what happened to this couple, how they are transitioning to a new state, a new house, with a new family member. I want to know what happened to his grandfather and how his mother is doing. And I want to know how his wife is doing because as the love he has for his family shines through his words, it is his love for his wife that really got to me as shown in the following quote of a time when his adoptive father is dying. Sugarhouse is Matthew Batt’s first published work – I sincerely hope he will continue publishing either with his own story or with a story out of his imagination.
Throughout all this time, I couldn’t help but feel a bit like an outsider. After all this was in Madison, where his daughters from his first marriage lived. They were kind and generous with me, but they were also anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five years older than I was. And since they were sisters, they had their own language. Without Dad to bring me into the middle, I was lost.
Jenae ignored all that. She hugged and held everybody, wiped their snotty faces, pulled hair from their eyes, laughed at their funny makeup. She joked with their recalcitrant spouse and made their children feel cheeky and talented. She made us eat frozen custard and bought clean socks at a grocery store for everybody. She slept on the floor of Dad’s hospice room, neither asking for nor needing permission, and she sat with me on his last night, holding my hand while I held his. (pg. 40)