Structured around Gwendolyn Brooks’ seminal poem We Real Cool and a bus ride where Brian Broome observed a young Black boy named Tuan interacting with his father, this autobiography in essays is a profound, powerful examination of the life of a gay black man growing up in late 20th century America.
Born and raised in 1970s northeastern Ohio, Brian knew he was different from other boys at an early age, and not in a way that his parents or society approved of. His father, especially, thought that constantly, viciously beating him would instill the desired manliness that he seemed to lack. As soon as Brian was able, he left small town life for the lure of a big city, where he thought he might finally find his people and a life of liberation and love. Things don’t go as planned, and the shy young man discovers drink and drugs before finally being able to discover himself.
Standard memoir stuff, but Mr Broome pulls even fewer metaphorical punches than his father did in actuality, tho the younger man directs his ruthlessness in a more deserved direction, interrogating the issues of race, sexuality and masculinity that made him the person he is today. Punch Me Up To The Gods is an unflinchingly honest examination of all the terrible things that shaped him, whether done to or by him, as well as a stunningly generous expression of love and compassion for all the hurting, hurtful people just struggling to survive in a world that too often encourages fear of and cruelty to the “other”. The memoir is beautifully shaped, using Ms Brooks’ poem as a narrative scaffolding while also providing another throughline in the form of Mr Broome’s meditations on Tuan’s life as they both journey on the bus. The writing is astounding throughout this brilliantly crafted, searingly intelligent critique of a culture that could have very easily destroyed Mr Broome. That he could come through decades of pain to write this masterpiece of empathy and honesty is a testament both to his own character and will, and to the threads of kindness and hope that we need to keep displaying in our everyday lives. Books like this encourage us all to work to be less racist, to be less colorist, to not judge people based on gender or sexuality. It’s an important, vital, absorbing read.
I did not, however, care for Yona Harvey’s introduction. On the plus side, it didn’t spoil Mr Broome’s narrative. On the minus, it talked mostly about James Baldwin (to which, awesome but irrelevant — Mr Broome discusses Mr Baldwin in the text and it doesn’t need embroidering upon) and also about Ms Harvey’s own attitude to the book, which quite frankly set my teeth on edge. Maybe it’s because I’ve never had patience for those kids who revel in shaming and narcing, the way that entire “you’re gonna get in trouble” singsong passage she includes so vividly evokes. I’d honestly recommend skipping the introduction entirely so you can better enjoy this excellent memoir without the intrusive shadow of judgey assholes looming larger than they need to.
Punch Me Up To The Gods: A Memoir by Brian Broome was published today May 18 2021 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is available from all good booksellers, including