Toy Fights: A Boyhood
“the poetic marvel of his language makes every chapter richly textured and a joy to read.”
In Toy Fights, acclaimed Scottish poet Don Paterson spins a wickedly funny memoir of his boyhood in working-class Dundee. The lively stories he recreates call to mind great classic coming-of-age memoirs, like Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, and Frank Conroy's Stop-Time. Paterson masterfully negotiates the dual consciousness of the storyteller he is now, with perspicacity earned over decades, and the bright, awkward, watchful boy he was in the 1970s and 1980s.
His keenly observed portraits of the people he encountered—friends, teachers, neighbors, church officials, family members—render these figures as indelibly for the reader as they clearly were for young Paterson. He uses hyperbole to great comic effect: "Dr. Carswell was the godlike figure who had tended me from birth. He was a tall, bald man of negligible senescence—he might have been anywhere between forty and ninety-five—a patrician, rather doctrinaire figure, though he had a ready smile and a gasping, narrow-eyed laugh that lasted ten seconds longer than was comfortable."
And this gem about a girl in his class: "Kay was tall, impossibly upright in her bearing, and with the kind of facial symmetry that seemed to indicate God's personal oversight of the casting process, though admittedly symmetry was at more of a premium in a school where merely having one eye on either side of your nose was considered a good feature."
Paterson's wizardry with language and description, and long, winding sentences make for sumptuous evocative passages that are often hilarious and a pure pleasure to read, like this description of his early school days, when students were seated "in order of intelligence," he writes, "with our house genius Eileen Hurrell in the top right corner and the other thirty of us arranged sequentially, in a kind of boustrophedon of stupid that terminated—invariably—in a terrifying, blond, lifeless, floppy, permanently smiling ventriloquist's dummy called Gareth Waddell. . . . From a bright start in Primary 3, I was shunted in peristaltic heaves down this gormless colon like a swallowed brick, and by P5 I was looking at the back of Gareth's head."
Paterson can get away with cheeky, even scathing descriptions of characters (i.e., Jim Sprunt, a prayer leader, was a "giant baboon of a man with a hook nose so big he had trouble drinking properly, and had to pour liquids into his face from one side"), because the portraits—in spite of his blunt assessments—convey an affection, and because Paterson does not spare himself. He turns his crucifying lens on his own character and misguided antics. "I recall sitting outside on the close steps in front of the tenement with the bigger kids, who were discussing what guns and outfits they were saving up for. I don't know what possessed me to breezily chip in with, 'Yeah, if I don't wet the bed for another six nights I'm getting an Action Man,' but the remark didn't quite win the nods of chin-stroking approval I'd hoped for."
The book moves forward episodically as Paterson grows up, but chapters are also sometimes topical. A chapter called "Got Any Swetchies" is about candy and sweets and the Scottish diet in general, which, Paterson writes, "draws heavily from the Tan Food Group."
Another is a chapter on his brief obsession with origami, a respect for which he still avows: "I have always had a thing for quality stationery, which somehow brought me closer to God; but origami makes you feel like a god, and conjures something from next to nothing."
The chapter on being baptized and speaking in tongues is particularly entertaining. Luke, a boy in Paterson's prayer meetings, "spoke in the dialect of some brain-damaged infernal troll. It mostly consisted of two words: Oombara coombara oombara coombara oombara coombara . . . I was both terrified and embarrassed for him. I was amazed no one had ever pulled him aside to tell him to either shut up or make more of an effort." Paterson's memoir is filled with such charming, absurd, and very funny anecdotes.
Periodically Paterson uses footnotes to continue a story from his childhood into the future—a sort of future flash—or to comment on certain cultural trends of the moment, like the "epidemic of performative narcissism hosted by the alt-right and leftist subcultures of YouTube and TikTok, where the mentally ill have parlayed their delusions into microcelebrity." Mostly these footnotes are worth the departure from the main narrative, though on an occasion or two they are dense and distracting.
Every chapter is like a vertical drop back into moments of Paterson's life as he progresses through his childhood and adolescence, with commentary. Readers can dip into a chapter and savor it and return to the narrative later. The book lacks the compelling forward thrust of many contemporary memoirs that focus around a conflict or struggle to overcome. But the captivating immersion into Paterson's 1970s and 1980s childhood in Scotland, filtered through his wise and witty commentary as he peers back in time, and the poetic marvel of his language makes every chapter richly textured and a joy to read.