FROM CALDERONE

It is the beginning of a chapter (perhaps the opening chapter) of a memoir I am working on. Any comments will be appreciated, but I am particularly interested in knowing if 1) the material flows and 2) whether the dialogue is stilted. Thank you in advance to anyone willing to take the time to comment. (Also, I don't know how to italicize in a post, but I do know the titles need to be italicized.)

I tend to be a little high strung. Like a Vietnam vet. It may be one of those innate characteristics you're born with, like an extra finger or blue eyes, but I think it was my childhood. We grew up in a combat zone. It wasn't Watts or Hell's Kitchen, but living there with Daddy was our own personal version of Apocalypse Now: Daddy as deranged Colonel Kurtz and the rest of us the shell-shocked grunts.

In the movie, a motley crew of kid soldiers are forced to invade Kurtz's compound by Captain Willard, a soldier almost as unbalanced as Kurtz. Calamity lurks around every tree trunk as soldiers are picked off one-by-one, either by death or insanity. I could never decide which was worse.

According to Daddy,outside in our Rhode Island neighborhood, the war raged on. The enemy could be anyone. The threat could come from anywhere. "Don't ever let your guard down," he'd say. Or, "Don't let people fool you." Sometimes he'd be more specific. "Our goddamn mayor's a crook." Or, "Look, they killed Johnny Abenante. The son-of-a-bitch deserved it." Most of the time, the only thing I really understood was that the world was one scary place.

The house was a barracks. Daddy wanted counters clear, beds made, floors gleaming like spit-shined boots and all of us standing at attention when he walked in the door. He conducted spot inspections and if the quarters didn't meet his standards, the colonel brought the war inside.

One day, I remember, it started with a cheese sandwich. Mama made the best cheese sandwiches, the bread toasted to a golden brown and the warm cheese oozing out the sides. I sat at the kitchen table and ate my sandwich while daydreaming about summer vacation: I wouldn't have to worry about homework anymore. I could read whatever I wanted, whenever I felt like it. I could spend the day at the city pool or ride my bike to the playground for a game of kickball.

I'd only eaten half of my sandwich when I had to pee. On the way back from the bathroom, I passed the parlor and heard the theme song from Bewitched. The TV was a source of pride and friction in our house. My brothers and I had helped Mama carefully past S&H green stamps in little books in order to earn it. To fill one book required 1200 stamps. For months, we licked and stamped and dreamed of the day when we'd be able to watch our favorite shows in the best color ever--100% Solid State AccuColor. Almost 200 books, numerous shriveled tongues and endless hours later, we were the proud owners of an RCA XL-100 color television. She was a beauty.

My brother David sat curled up in Daddy's La-Z-Boy entranced by the flickering screen. "What are you looking at?" he said when I walked in.

"I don't know what I'm looking at. A monkey, maybe?"

"Shut up, will ya?"

"Why, what are you watching?"

"Nothing. This drivel was on when I came in. I was too tired to change the channel."

"Yeah. Right. It's not like you were watching Bewitched or anything."

"I didn't even know it was on. I just came in, I told you."

It was one of those episodes with Samantha's cousin Serena. Samantha the goody-goody wasn't much fun, but nobody messed with Serena. Not unless they wanted to be turned into a turnip or have ears like Dumbo. The sandwich didn't stand a chance.

Two days later, I noticed it still sitting on the green plastic plate. It looked a little moldy and now a half-eaten chocolate donut, two coffee-stained pages of David's math homework, a can of deodorant without a top, Mama's little red sewing kit and my brother Bobby's dog-eared copy of Plato's Republic surrounded it. He was sixteen and on an intellectual streak.

The sight of the growing mess made my palms sweat. Like Samantha with Serena. I knew disaster was right around the corner. The mess was the wick. Daddy was the time bomb. Without a bomb disposal squad the whole house was going to blow. Tick-tick-tick.

CRITIQUE

Maybe I misunderstand what "high-strung" means. I think it refers to someone who is overly sensitive, someone querulous and fairly self-absorbed, who worries and whines quite a bit, with character too thin to smoothly weather what most of us take in stride, who makes mountains out of mole hills. I don't think a traumatized war vet is a good simile for that kind of person, and this narrator doesn't strike me as that kind of person either.

I think you meant to say something like this: "I tend to be a neat person, but it isn’t innate. My father, who was more of a commandant than a father, inflicted it upon me.” You need to clarify in your mind what meaning you want to convey and what story you want to tell. And if the narrator tends to be neat, and has a domineering father who demands cleanliness, is the narrator really going to leave that mess there for any length of time? Doesn't wash with me. By the way, bombs have fuses, not wicks, and if a bomb has a fuse, it will hiss, not tick. I think “detonator' would be a better word.

You exhibit serious problems with digression. I suppose if you're trying to portray a mentally ill or unclear thinking character, it might be OK, but it gets tiresome in a hurry. I recommend you eliminate all the rabbit trails and stick with the story of the father. See how much better it reads when I simply remove all the static, without addressing any other problems:

I tend to be a little high strung. Like a Vietnam vet. It may be one of those innate characteristics you're born with, like an extra finger or blue eyes, but I think it was my childhood. We grew up in a combat zone. It wasn't Watts or Hell's Kitchen, but living there with Daddy was our own personal version of Apocalypse Now: Daddy as deranged Colonel Kurtz and the rest of us the shell-shocked grunts.

According to Daddy, outside in our Rhode Island neighborhood, the war raged on. The enemy could be anyone. The threat could come from anywhere. "Don't ever let your guard down," he'd say. Or, "Don't let people fool you." Sometimes he'd be more specific. "Our goddamn mayor's a crook." Or, "Look, they killed Johnny Abenante. The son-of-a-bitch deserved it." Most of the time, the only thing I really understood was that the world was one scary place.

The house was a barracks. Daddy wanted counters clear, beds made, floors gleaming like spit-shined boots and all of us standing at attention when he walked in the door. He conducted spot inspections and if the quarters didn't meet his standards, the colonel brought the war inside.

Once, the war started with a cheese sandwich. I'd only eaten half of my sandwich when I had to pee. On the way back from the bathroom, I passed the parlor and heard the theme song from Bewitched.

My brother David sat curled up in Daddy's La-Z-Boy entranced by the flickering screen.

"What are you looking at?" he said when I walked in.

"I don't know what I'm looking at. A monkey, maybe?"

"Shut up, will ya?"

"What are you watching?"

I sat to watch with my brother and soon forgot the sandwich. Two days later, I noticed it still sitting on the green plastic plate. It looked a little moldy and now a half-eaten chocolate donut, two coffee-stained pages of David's math homework, a can of deodorant without a top, Mama's little red sewing kit and my brother Bobby's dog-eared copy of Plato's Republic surrounded it.

The sight of the growing mess made my palms sweat. Like Samantha with Serena. I knew disaster was right around the corner. The mess was the wick. Daddy was the time bomb. Without a bomb disposal squad the whole house was going to blow. Tick-tick-tick.

Visit Hammer & Tongs and see if you can't tighten this up considerably by applying some of those principles.