Monday, September 12, 2005

Song of Himself

"Imagine reading about your people, your life, and seeing long black streaks that render you anonymous." For six years, Craig Hickman endured unimaginable bureaucracy to find his birth mother, and the papers he finally received, looked more like declassified FBI documents than adoption records. Before the 1980s, adopted children (especially those in Wisconsin) had little hope of finding their birth parents, as vital information was covered up, deleted, or distorted. Hickman, however, managed to piece together enough information to locate his birth mother, and that story - along with his families' reaction to this revelation - makes up the bulk of Fumbling Toward Divinity.

A Harvard University graduate and Boston-area resident for many years, Hickman blazed a trail as an openly gay, African-American performance artist and activist. His background in performance art becomes readily apparent, as he tells his story largely in the third person, with narrative occasionally interrupted by poems or lengthy letters written to various relatives. It may take readers some time to adapt to Hickman's unusual cadences, and a massive infodump courtesy of bipolar Uncle James - the first member of his birth family that Craig makes contact with - could prove a stumbling block to some. However, readers that make it past these unwieldy, potential obstacles will be rewarded with a story of searing emotionality and uncommon beauty. Hickman's initial delight leads to disillusionment and the heartfelt belief that "being related to them isn't enough of a reason to have a relationship with them," then ultimately to a happier medium between the extremes.

As an artist, Hickman paints his family members with deft, subtle strokes. His adoptive parents Mary and Hazelle, sister Gina (a fellow adoptee) and Dutch husband Job all support his search, but wonder what he'll find and what affect these revelations will have on him. Newfound Uncle James flies out from California to Milwaukee to be part of the proceedings as he, Craig and Job journey by car to Georgia to meet Craig's birth mother (and James' sister) Jennifer.

Naturally, Jennifer is overwhelmed by Craig's unannounced arrival, and wants to make up for lost time with the son she was forced to give up for adoption. However, his homosexuality doesn't sit well with her devout Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs, and Craig does his best to overlook her comments about his "lifestyle" and his "choice," as well as how she insists on calling him by his birth name, Joseph. Jennifer's three daughters - Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania - cautiously welcome Craig into their lives, as do other members of the family. Only Jennifer's mother, England, is less than pleased at Craig's arrival. A domineering, manipulative, holier-than-thou matriarch, she's pissed that her daughter's dirty little secret has shown up on their doorstep and is eagerly telling his story to anyone who'll listen. The moments when Craig finally stands up to his birth grandmother and castigates her for all the mental and emotional damage she's inflicted on Jennifer and her other relatives, are a blistering highlight of Fumbling Toward Divinity.

But as Craig gets to know Jennifer and her family better, a pall begins to fall over his dealings with them. Jennifer turns out to have learned some of her mother's manipulative ways; she quickly moves to Boston and tries to drive a wedge between Craig and the people who raised him. Meanwhile, Craig finds himself not only enmeshed but also entrapped in his birth family's dramas and traumas. His relationship with Job suffers, especially once members of Job's family try to sabotage their marriage.

Fumbling Toward Divinity may be rambling, messy and untidy at times, but then again so are most people's lives, and readers will find themselves inexorably drawn into Hickman's tale. The book's internal timeline flits from the "present" of 2001 to various moments in its protagonists' lives and pasts with little warning, but the richness of Hickman's prose overcomes most narrative hiccups. At its best moments, the book burns with a fierce, furious passion as Hickman strives to reveal the truth within his life and to dispel the many secrets and shadows woven by England and Jennifer. Other moments of beauty include teenage Craig's mentor-relationship with an older man, Roy, and the carnal fraternity of men seeking sex with other men in Milwaukee's Juneau Park. There's also a stark moment when Hickman reveals how he narrowly avoided becoming one of Jeffrey Dahmer's victims in 1987.

Hickman portrays the members of his families as flawed individuals, but doesn't spare himself from the blame game or covering up his many defects. In his own way, he's as imperfect as the rest of them, just another wayward soul fumbling toward divinity. The cover of this book proclaims it "A Great Book," and while this reviewer automatically is initially skeptical of such grand claims, he concedes that, in this case, there is truth in advertising.

J.S. Hall, Bay Windows

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