A Tale of Family Clutter
by Gwendolyn Knapp
256 pages, Gotham
Review by J. S. Colley
After A While You Just Get Used To It is a memoir. The narrative focuses on the author’s years growing up in Florida and, later, on her great escape to The Big Easy. But she doesn’t escape for long. Her pack rat mom, with all her baggage—physical and mental—soon follows.
What can I say about this book? It’s funny. It’s raw. It’s heartbreaking. It’s real. It’s honest. It’s GROSS! At times it makes you squirm.
And I can relate.
Like Gwendolyn (Wendy) Knapp, I spent a good part of my youth in Florida. In north central Florida, to be precise. And while my family’s dysfunction is not exactly like Knapp’s (all families have their own unique brand), I recognized that which is uniquely southern.
Unlike Knapp, I cannot call myself a true Florida Cracker. My family was not indigenous to Florida. We migrated, moving there for my mother’s health (Ha. The doctors were wrong—all that mold!). But I lived there long enough to recognize eccentricities unique to that steamy peninsula, if not to all the deep south. If the Knapp family were to have a prayer, they should never have moved to The Big Easy, another locale where the weather imitates the conditions of a Petri dish; but it does make for an interesting read.
Maybe that’s the element that makes southern writers so unique. Their writing ripens in the hot, sultry atmosphere. The kind of atmosphere that enables beautiful things grow, but also makes them rot.
And there is a lot of “rot” in this story. From rotten teeth (her Aunt Susie had less teeth than prison stays), to mangy dogs, roaches, cat-peed couches, soiled khakis and a staph infection that comes to a big, ugly head. I admit that it was hard, at times, to ingest all the sad squalor, to not be turned off by it, but Knapp’s humor and her terrific writing skills made it not only palatable but rewarding. Amid all the omg! stuff is a lot of laughs and humanity. Without giving anything away, there is a scene where Wendy lies down among the flowers, if only for a few minutes, as if to be cleansed of all the tawdriness. Good for her.
Knapp has a talent for capturing the essence of a character, or a scene, though keen observation. She captures this absurd situation when she goes with her boyfriend to pay the rent at his gay, drug-dealing slumlord’s house:
People wanting to buy dime bags or pay rent or get their bangs trimmed mingled around the enormous black marble island in the kitchen.
There are many quotable passages, but I’ll leave them for readers to discover on their own.
The story did jump around a bit in the first half. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, events don’t have to be told in a linear fashion, but a few times I had to stop and think. And there were a lot of similes. Three or four on one page. Don’t get me wrong, I like similes and metaphors. They were well done (“their instrument cases hovering like censor bars”) and, especially in the first half, gave the reader a sense of the Florida Cracker personality, but they can become distracting if overdone. Especially if you are clueless to what something is being compared to, which I was on a few occasions. In the second half, though, the narrative becomes smoother and the similes rarer.
This is a great read—funny, sad, tragic, and hopeful—everything a good memoir should be. I’m looking forward to reading more from this talented author.