Reviewed by Freesia McKee
Cretin Boy is a memoir about the years Jim Landwehr spent attending an all-boys military high school in St. Paul in the late 1970s. The book is constructed from twenty-three chapters arranged by category: “Vices,” “Cars,” “Jobs,” “Commuting,” etc. I think of the chapters as micro-memoirs; each of them could certainly stand alone. Cumulatively, Landwehr seems determined to investigate the role of high school itself, when “the clay is wet, and we spend the rest of our lives spinning and shaping ourselves until we are fully formed.” He wants to recount what happened to help him understand who he and his friends are today.
Readers paging through a memoir about military school might expect accounts of forced physical exertion or a confessional tell-all about a pressure cooker environment. Instead, Landwehr’s poetic heart leads the way as he relays formative interactions with kind adults such Mr. Tierney, “a short-haired hippy disguised by his shirt and tie,” or the woman who drives the narrator to school (he hitchhikes every day!) in a pickup truck with four back wheels.
The narrator does get into plenty of debauchery with his best friends, whether they are drinking beers in a cavern, hanging out in a cabin on Grand Lake, or wearing a ridiculous homemade beer can costume fashioned out of papier-mâché and chicken wire during a school spirit event called “Hobo Day,” hilarious in light of the school’s strict uniform codes. There are lengthy passages about the constant polishing of brass and shining of shoes.
Landwehr’s crew of “awkward, geeky teens” living “in a day when hair was everything” comes across as inquisitive and optimistic. Detailed description is one of Landwehr’s strengths, demonstrated in scenes like this one: “One of our favorite hangouts as teenagers was a place called Lee’s Billiards, an alcohol-free pool hall in nearby Falcon Heights. The owner, Lee, was a grizzled, lanky chain-smoker who ran a tight business overseeing a dozen pool tables for rent by the hour. ‘Use the coasters!’ he’d shout from behind the counter after we’d purchased a can of pop from the machine. In the corner sat a jukebox thumping out hits of the day like ‘My Sharona’ and ‘Sultans of Swing,’ while teens and twenty-somethings circled the tables calculating angles and putting their high school geometry skills to the test.”
This memoir mentions family only marginally, though we learn bits and pieces: that the narrator’s father died, that the mother is raising six kids, and that the narrator and his siblings take on part-time jobs to help pay tuition. The stories remain mostly extracurricular: what the narrator and his friends get into on nights and weekends, rock concerts, sinking time and money into jalopies destined for the junkyard, being paired up for dates at the sister school according to height (unsurprisingly, this yields mixed results), attending a classmate’s party on Summit Avenue, and coming of age through music, beloved and detested, including Electric Light Orchestra, Kansas, Barry Manilow, Steely Dan, The Knack, and Bob Seger. High school remains a place where music is used to forge identity.
There is a large quotient of teasing at Cretin, and Landwehr is quick to point out that this was not one of the environment’s healthiest aspects. After describing one of these digs, he writes, “The fact that I remember it from over forty years ago is testament to the power of words … It reeked of toxic masculinity before it was even a phrase.” I appreciated this analysis.
Cretin Boy does not hinge on a single great trauma or challenge—there is not a central problem the narrator is trying to solve except for how to grow up. In this way, Cretin Boy serves as one roadmap for the bildungsroman memoirs so many writers attempt to craft. These writers can learn from his structure. First, Landwehr shrinks the timeline to a manageable four years. Then, he taps into the cultural mythos of high school as a time of danger and pleasure, a threshold of new beginnings and surprise. By choosing a cast of characters, his core group of high school friends to whom the book is dedicated, Landwehr then divides the story into one topic per chapter (homeroom, friends, typing, teachers, etc.) to create something readers can hop into and cruise along with like the book’s mythic white Corvette.
The memoir closes with a thirty-year high school reunion which, of course, is a mixed bag of fun and awkwardness, just like high school itself. This chapter and the epilogue after pull all the threads together as the narrator winds up his trajectory and reflects on who he was before he knew it. There’s even a return to Lee’s Billiards. I find something comforting in the idea that even when we feel unsure or inexperienced, an inner illumination leads the way. One trait Landwehr seems to have retained all these years is his hopefulness and positive nature, shown through the generosity he grants all the figures who appear in the book. He exacts little harsh judgement. Instead, Landwehr is a kind of community archivist invested in the idea that personal histories are worth preserving because our memories help tell us who we are.
Freesia McKee is a poet, micro-memoirist, book reviewer, and teacher. Her words have appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, CALYX, Gertrude, So to Speak, Nimrod, GO Magazine, and the Ms. Magazine Blog. Headmistress Press published her poetry chapbook How Distant the City in 2018. She’s a 2021 contributor to the Ploughshares blog. Find Freesia on Twitter (@freesiamckee) or at FreesiaMcKee.com.