There's something about writing one's memoir in all its good, bad, and ugly truth that must make you feel somewhat like standing naked in the middle of Times Square. And while I myself may or may not have ever been naked in Times Square, I'm not telling because unlike Josh Stallings, I don't have the guts that would permit me to open up my diary to the world...if I had a diary.
But I must applaud him and everyone else who shares their soul with the world this way. Mine is always thinly disguised inside of the characters I write. At least I like to imagine it is.
Josh Stallings memoir "All The Wild Children" is bold, stark, heart-breaking, often humorous and quite beautifully written. The Stallings kids basically raised themselves when their parents checked out of their parenting roles for other pursuits. They did the best with what they had, growing up in an environment of violence, drugs, alcohol, and guns, and somehow managed to live through it all and even thrive. My favourite parts in this book are two particularly crazy fights between Josh and his older brother Larkin that remind me a bit of my older brothers. There's a knife fight when they were kids that's quite funny (if you can imagine a knife fight being funny, well maybe it's less of a fight and more just playing around), that had me completely cracking up.
Stallings refers to his upbringing as being "raised by two abused and broken narcissists" and yet I still see and feel so much love from his parents in both their own unique "broken, narcisstic ways" coming through on the page (maybe it's what Josh feels for them too that is being revealed) and more than enough love from his siblings, and in his marriage, to last anyone a lifetime. There are rich passages that are poetic and deep and supurbly written in "All The Wild Children", especially in reference to his son Dylan. The timeline jumps between the various stages, and ages, in his life are done with ease and consistency, making it powerfully stylish and a pleasure to read.
Perhaps it's his earlier years, enduring so much instability in his life and family that prepared Stallings for later struggles. Every so often throughout the book he writes, "this is the new normal", which I found interesting and gratifying. Because to me that shows how adept he is at not only rolling with the punches life will continue to dole out, but at accepting and embracing change. It's that kind of courage that makes us strong, makes us grow, and learn, and become who we are.
Josh's first two crime novels, "Beautiful, Naked & Dead", and "Out There Bad" are also quite awesome and should not be missed.
Excerpt From All The Wild Children:
The hills all around Eagle Rock are in flames. Fifty years of chaparral fuels the wildfire. This is what happens when nature is contained too long. With no burn-off, dried brush has stacked higher and higher until one random spark. Then forty-foot walls of flame sweep down from the high country and into our once safe city.
Twenty years ago Jared was two years old and the hills across from our house in Montecito Heights caught fire. Helicopters roared overhead. Fear soaked the air. Coyotes and rabbits dashed frantic out of the brush. And my younger son connected all the dots wrong. Helicopters and sirens meant danger. Firemen made fires. He would tremble when a chopper flew overhead for years.
Now the hills of Los Angeles are in flames and my son’s head is on fire. I don’t recognize him any better than I recognize my city. Ash is falling like snow, and the storm clouds are made of smoke. There is a stranger inside my son, and my son is a stranger inside my home.
Jared is 2 and inconsolable. I hold him to my bare chest. Skin on skin, blood of my blood. He is a lad of big emotions. He is his father's son. He has his mother's dark hair and dark eyes, but he has his father's heart. I hold him until he falls asleep. I lay him in his bed and rub my thumb in a circle between his eyebrows. He is down for the count. It is clear that rest is what he needs but if you make the mistake of pointing this out, he won't sleep a wink. Or he might, but he’ll fight it tooth and nail. I have the bite and scratch marks to prove this.
Jared is 23 and running wild in the streets. He has drunk and raged his way out of his last four jobs. He lets me know he is leaving home in a text. I m movin to SF cant liv wid yo wife. I take him at his word. Within ten days his bedroom is packed and boxed and transformed into a spare bedroom for our niece to stay in while she looks for a place. He does not rage when he arrives home, tail between his legs. He plays it off as if he expected it. He keeps his rage buried deep. He carries his rage, just under his bruised skin.
What happened? What off-ramp led to this foreign neighborhood?
Jared is 16 and missing from school. I leave work and go searching. His girlfriend climbs into my SUV and we roll. We look at all the haunts. He is in none of them. Deep dread fills my heart. “Rocko and Jared sometimes hang out in the Drunk Tank.” I stare at her blankly. “In Echo Park. It's a house they call the Drunk Tank.” That is all I need to know and I’m gone.
Erika is in the truck. We cruise up Alvarado Boulevard. Erika gets directions to the Drunk Tank from Rocko’s mother. Rocko shoots dope with my son. Rocko is smart as hell. He is AP off the charts smart. Rocko will be doing hard time by his nineteenth birthday.
Outside the Drunk Tank we sit at the curb. “Whatever happens you don’t come in. If it goes wrong, leave and I’ll meet you at home.” I am calm as I take a Buck knife from the glove box and slip it in my jacket. “If our son is in there, I will bring him out.” I’m back in the ghetto fighting for my life as I move up the walkway.
Jared is 4, he has his red cowboy hat on. He is riding a pony at Griffith Park. His smile is pure sunshine. I would do anything for that child.
“He’s not here.” The girl at the door cops a small attitude. A young man behind her sits on the floor watching I Love Lucy. He looks up at me, all bluster and tough. The girl starts to shut the door on me.
I push the door open.
“You have no fucking idea who I am. You see a concerned dad and have no idea where I come from.” I am still, speaking without emotion. Cold. “I just got out of prison, and I don’t want to go back, but I will.” It’s a lie. So what. “I’m not leaving without my boy.”
The girl breathes slowly looking up at me. The kid on the floor watches TV like his life depends on it. The mood I’m in, it may.
“I’m not leaving without my boy.”
“You won’t believe me he’s not here?”
“Guess you’re going to want to search the place?”
“Yes, I will.” I keep myself neutral, hand in my pocket on the knife, ready for whatever. She steps out of the way. I walk past the sitting young man. He still won't look up. The girl leads me from room to room. Two stories and a basement. I feel bad about scaring the girl, but not bad enough to stop looking for my son.
I leave without him.
Erika and I go home and wait for the inevitable phone call. I pray for the hospital as opposed to the morgue.
Jared is 14, he and I are in London, hanging in a friend's flat in Islington. Deb and I are talking movies and smoking. Jared is on the floor with Jo-Anne, a crime reporter and her husband Jemar, a flamenco dancer, they are playing a board game and laughing. He is amazing, he is my running mate. My travel partner.
The phone call comes. It is the emergency room. My baby boy overdosed on opiates. He will tell me they were pills he mixed with beer. The nurse will tell me they found him out cold on the sidewalk, if a neighbor hadn’t reported it he would be dead. I will call my brother and the next day, still hung over I will place my boy on a plane to Texas. Two weeks. My brother and brother in-law will clean him up and send him home. Only it won't take. He has years left to run. His college fund will be spent on rehabs, and none will take.
The fire is 48% contained today. My son is wild in the streets. Out on a run. I don’t know if he is still alive. I don’t know how I feel about that. I know that my ambivalence makes me sad.
The fire is 60% contained. Erika finds soot in the downstairs bathroom sink. Matches lit below a spoon to heat heroin leave soot. We learned this when he was sixteen. That was six years ago. Now it makes me feel hollow. I feel shallow. My emotions too weak to make it to the surface.
I wonder if the LAFD will extinguish the wildfire before my son extinguishes his. I wonder how it will make me feel. To contemplate my son’s death, forces me to face what I put my mother through.
“Hey Ma... yeah it’s me... I’m fine...” I’m on the cell driving across Los Feliz. I don’t tell her about her grandson or my feelings. I carry my own water. “Boys are good... I just called to tell you I’m sorry for every time I made you worry if I was going to die.” She laughs and thanks me. She tells me a story I’ve heard before.
We are on the beach, I am seven or eight, I have an orange towel around my neck, like superman’s cape. I start climbing a sandstone cliff. My mother watches as the little boy scampers up higher and higher. He is too high for her to catch if he falls. He is too high for her to help. She has two choices, scream up and tell him to come down, or turn away and not watch his daredevil climb. She turns her gaze out to the water and prays, God, this is Jane, please watch over my boy. He’s in your hands now.
Jared is 6, he and I are in Joshua Tree. He wants to climb a rock cliff. We do. Both of us fearless. Both of us aware we are sharing something very special. On top of the rocky spire is a flat tabletop rock. Jared looks out over the valley. We are over a hundred feet in the air. “I’m so glad Mom isn’t here!” He screams, tiny fists pump over his head.
I am 50. I miss that little boy who is so much like his father.
I am 50 and the fire is still burning in Los Angeles.