(Grove Press, Black Cat, 2016)
Say you discover in your teens that your dad was married to another woman when he met your mother (and that he lied to your mother about his marital status), and that when your parents divorce, you go with your bipolar mother, and your older sister goes with your dad. Say your dad is a somewhat/sometimes charming guy but also secretive and always short on money, and that, at some point, you realize that the cause of this charming secretive cashlessness has to do with a severe gambling addiction. Let’s stipulate that this is all happening in the ’80s and ’90s in Detroit, a city that itself is charming, hard to fully understand, broke. Finally, in high school, your dad gets arrested for robbing banks, and is dubbed by the local media the Mario Brothers Bandit (because of his disguise—mustache, suspenders, hat).
That’s just one strand of Molly Brodak’s memoir, Bandit, which is as compelling and fascinating a memoir as any in recent memory. Note, too, that little of the above even addresses Brodak herself, her actual lived experience. Another way to talk about her is to say that she worked her guts out to afford and attend college, got brain surgery halfway through her MFA, and had her debut full-length collection of poetry picked as a prize-winner by Mary Ruefle (A Little Middle of the Night, from Iowa).
This bifurcation is, I think, critical to note: Brodak’s Bandit is sensational not just for the sensationalism of the details Brodak has lived through and experienced, nor for the almost overwhelmingly sumptuous prose (Brodak is not just a poet, but is also a ferocious baker—specifically a dessert baker—her stuff about as over-the-top and indulgent-seeming as imaginable, which is simply to note she’s clearly fond of richness), but for the awareness she brings to the enterprise. This sort of awareness is, I’d argue, somewhat dicey in memoirs: one can’t throw a bookstore’s cat without hitting a dozen memoirs featuring self-awareness that's actually merely navel-gazery. What Brodak is doing is entirely different: in Bandit, she’s attempting to make sense of her father (and, by extension, her own life) by digging not merely into the narrative, but by picking at the whole notion of story.
She addresses this early on: in the second chapter, she lists the banks her father robbed, noting them flatly (“Dad robbed banks one summer. He robbed the Community Choise Credit Union on 13 Mile Road in Warren.”) and with flourish (“He robbed the TCF Bank on 14 Mile Road in Clawson, where I would open my first checking account when I turned seventeen. That’s the one with the little baskets of Dum-Dums at each window and the sour herb smell from the health food store next door.”) At that chapter’s end, she gives the whole story: “He went to prison for seven years after a lengthy trial, delayed by constant objections and rounds of him firing his public defenders. After his release he lived a normal life for seven years, and then robbed banks again.” You’re not far enough into the book to be aware of what larger agenda she might have, to be able to have a handle on her style or motives, and so on beginning the third chapter it feels like a weird but welcome breeze reaching your face:
There: see? Done with the facts already. The facts are easy to say; I say them all the time. They leave me out. They cover over the trouble like a kid. This isn't about them.
This is about whatever is cut from the frame of narrative. The fat remnants, broke bones, gristle, untender bits. Me, and Mom, and my sister, and him, the actual him beyond the Bandit version on the evening news.
Bandit is a marvel not just the over-the-topness of Broda’s story—plenty of writers could do just fine with such material—but this aspect, this peeling-back Brodak engages in throughout the story. To some degree, this is the central aspect of real great memoirs—Eggers’s and Karr’s and Bechdel’s, etc.—yet Brodak, to this reader, seems to go further into poking at the whole notion of narrative than anyone else, in the process exploding notions about how neatly one can draw lines around events and label them story. The chapters range in length, but the majority of them are brief, fewer than ten pages. This aspect is clutch; there’s a sense of let’s-try-this involved: if Brodak includes a story of she and her sister trying on make-up, will her dad and his addiction finally make sense? How about visiting the now-desolate part of Detroit her dad’s family moved into, and sneaking into his old abandoned school, and heading into his old church: will that make him come clear? Even as she's doing all this—asking her mom and sister about their memories, doing research on what her father said in his various court appearances, visiting her father in prison, playing blackjack herself—there's a sense of contingency, an awareness that nothing will, ultimately, make sense of her history, her family, her past.
And not for nothing, Brodak is smart as hell—she’s the kid who, in high school, would disappear into the library, nose in unassigned books during boring classes, etc. She’s got a whole chapter addressing how money and time relate through gambling and the thing could be broadened into a monograph that’d get appreciative nods from philosophers. She’s as astute as anyone I’ve read about Detroit, offering almost off-handedly this sort of psychological profile of the place (and of Atlanta, her home now), and that brain surgery she goes through during her MFA? In that chapter—which comes without any warning, no hint in any of the preceding pages that she'll undergo a medical trauma—she writes how she was “the kind of person who had lived, as introverted writers and readers do, almost exclusively in her head, regarding her body largely as an irritating, irrational corporation that demanded constant and utterly unappreciated maintenance. The original me would have much preferred bodilessness, and in luck of all lucks here I was with headlessness instead.” Whatever else you take away, think of that for a second, how willing an author this is, how open: that she'd allow herself not weeks of torture following surgery, but instead is able to get to a sort of grace through jettisoning her former conception of self, is able to find something like grace—she calls it luck—in getting the opposite of what she wishes for.
In that same chapter—chapter fifty—about the brain surgery, Brodak writes, “There was no reason, the doctor insisted. No reason: the worst reason of all.” That’s the whole game Bandit’s engaged in, in lots of ways: I’m giving nothing away to note that, by book’s end, Brodak’s dad’s not revealed, his purposes and reasons made illuminated. An ending that offered such would feel awfully thin and neat, of course, but what you get by the end is somehow more and bigger than narrative neatness: you’re provided a glimpse, a view of one exceptionally careful and attentive human’s attempt to make sense or meaning of things, but what you’ll actually be stunned by, on finishing, is how willing she is to allow the incoherence of her story—and, more broadly, any story—to be enough. No reason might be the worst reason, but by the end Brodak makes clear that no story needs a reason simply to be, and, past that, to be told. You’re wise to listen.