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PERISHABLE by Dirk Jamison
Chicago Review Press, 2006, 212 pp.
ISBN-13: 978-1-55652-599-5

Charlie Dickinson review

Dirk Jamison's childhood memoir, PERISHABLE, is about, among other things, a dad who decides a few minutes of daily Dumpster diving will put food on the table for the family.  That frees up the rest of the day for anything (or nothing).  

Dirk's dad seems the classic California flake, a worn hip-pocket copy of Carlos Casteneda giving him enough rationale to keep on the "Path with Heart" of the warrior who believes responsibility is a stupid word, while dragging a whole family, three kids included, through the truth and consequences of such anti-heroic antics.

Besides a father whose life-changing discovery was Dumpster diving (at a recent Sundance Film Festival, Jamison showed a documentary film about his father still Dumpster-happy at age 71), Jamison has other childhood hurdles to get past: Mom whose disconnects in the name of religion and food don't seem to serve her well in countering Dad's obsessions, an older sister whose violence against her younger brothers seems mentally unhinged, and Dirk's Mormon Scoutmaster whose pedophilia lands him in prison.
Jamison narrates much of PERISHABLE with the matter-of-fact, Dad's-a-crazy-character, resilient tone kids come by naturally.  But, of course, Jamison knows he's living anything but a normal childhood.  It's no small wonder one of his childhood heroes is Evel Knievel (the man who has "broken every bone in his body" and still performs).|

Written from the vantage point of adulthood, however, Jamison can add backstory elements to suggest how his father came to his uncompromised stance toward the world.  One might speculate drugs figured in the dad's amotivation.  But Jamison mentions no drugs in PERISHABLE.  Perhaps, his dad's dad, Grandfather Orville Jamison was a cautionary example against drugs: an addict who committed suicide years earlier.

What is telling, however, is mention of an instance of his father's cruelty to animals as a child.  That foreshadows one of PERISHABLE's more poignant scenes: Dad and Dirk clash over the former's abandonment of the family dog Buffy at a highway rest stop.  The obvious question hangs in the air, did Jamison's father give his children much more consideration, being content to feed them from Dumpsters?

While PERISHABLE accounts for only seven years of Dirk's childhood-- Huntington Beach to a Mammoth Lakes ski bum interlude to Mom's retreat to her Mormon extended family in La Grande, Oregon--the path to divorce is obvious from the start.  If anything, however, Mom giving up on Dad doesn't lessen Dirk's affection for his peculiar dad.

Oddly, Jamison doesn't appear to identify strongly with his mom.  He's quick to characterize her Mormon ways as off-putting and skims the inherent stability she brings to the family.  That is, Mom is dull, compared to Dad's Evel Knievelesque, go-for-broke lifestyle.  The great hunger--fittingly in a memoir about Dumpster diving for food--is nonmaterial and emotional.  Dirk really wants a father with whom he can identify.  A male figure to help fend off an evil older sister and who will make things happen when his passive mom won't, shy of being pushed to a breaking point.

Once, when his father invites him into a Dumpster, Dirk openly sums up what it's all about:  "Dad credits the strange solace of getting something for nothing, but it's just the sensation of finally being with him.  The actual father.  This feeling weighs more than the disgrace."

Some years after the divorce, Dirk gets a postcard from his dad, camping out in a Mexican jungle.  In a postscript, Dad advises:  "Be a winner, son.  Always give between 65 and 70 percent."  That's the quirky--and the reader realizes, loveable--dad who got Dirk Jamison through childhood.  PERISHABLE is the author's compelling story of endurance for both father and son and, I suspect, in the final sorting out, a portrait of a dad for whom Dirk has both pride and gratitude.
See family portraits of the Jamisons here.
© Charlie Dickinson Jan 2007
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