I have to hand it to former Xpress writer and cartoonist Ethan Clark: He sure knows how to title a book. His first full-length literary foray, Leaning with Intent to Fall: A Memoir (Garret County Press, 2007), takes its name from one of many trumped up New Orleans charges (assaulting a cheeseburger is another), but aptly sums up the punk lifestyle Ethan lives and eloquently describes.
“I didn’t make much money, but on warm nights, with whiskey in my belly, I didn’t mind biking around, taking the fried Twinkies to the strippers, or portabella sandwiches to the house on Royal where they filmed hardcore gay porn,” he writes of one of his many delivery jobs in New Orleans.
While the timeline at the end of Leaning covers and eight year span and ambles from Iowa to Ireland, the bulk of the story takes place in New Orleans’ seedy underbelly.
Clark hitches rides, vandalizes statues, steals liquor from a catering van, dances on rooftops and witnesses the tanning of a rat hide. He calls these misadventures “the great punk past times,” but for those not included in Clark’s dedication (“everyone who’s ever dropped everything to go to New Orleans, everyone who’s eaten out of dumpsters…”) the “greatness” of said past times might be unclear. Punk houses sound like little more than condemned buildings awaiting the wrecking ball, jobs are tortuously bad, acquaintances seem to include crack heads, petty thieves, and those prone to contagion.
But Clark is such a compelling storyteller and such an earnest and up-front character that even if the reader isn’t inspired to stick out a thumb or descend into the bowels of a dumpster (or monument, as in the “Up Lee’s A**” chapter), Clark’s memoir sheds a light on a lifestyle few other writers could make appealing. In fact, Clark is every bit as critical of his counterparts (“They follow the bloated beast of consumerism around, eating its discarded pizza, drinking the beers it sets down on garbage cans so it can catch more beads. Really, despite slogan-covered patches that may claim otherwise, these punks are about as free from society’s trappings as a tick is free of the dog.”) as he is of the middle-class reality against which he rails (“Modern American society, with all of its conveniences, all of its ATMs, Stop n’ Shops and drive-through cappuccino joints, has managed to suck most of the adventure right out of our lives.”). It’s Clark’s ability to see both sides, and to mitigate multiple view points with sharp wit, that makes Leaning a shining example of the increasingly popular memoir by the under-40 set.
So often, the young memoir (see Brad Land’s Goat, Janice Erlbaum’s Girlbomb and James Salants’ Leaving Dirty Jersey) is applauded for its unflinching bleakness, as if grimly retelling life’s darkest moments makes up for the lack of insight gleaned from age and experience. Clark doesn’t fall into the trap of appalling self-gossip or dysfunction worship. Instead, he tells it like it is, from hellish housemates and bad cops to renegade dance parties and Springtime romance.
Those who knew Clark during his years in Asheville will probably look forward to his take on our fair city, and to an extent those chapters disappoint. Mainly because names are relegated to initials and the writer’s general opinion of the mountain city is fairly lukewarm. “Now I’m in school and I’m paying somewhat inflated rent to live in kind-of boring Asheville,” he writes at the book’s conclusion (Clark has since returned to the—one can only suspect—less plebeian climes of New Orleans). The same chapter has the writer musing that he’s losing his taste for train hopping, shop lifting and abject poverty. Growing up is hard to do.
Still, its likely that Ethan will do that, too, with as much aplomb as he does everything else in Leaving.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter