One-Minute Book Reviews

May 24, 2007

David Matthews Looks Back on Straddling a Racial Divide in ‘Ace of Spaces’

The son of a black father and white mother writes of the confusion he felt while growing up in Baltimore in the late 20th century

Ace of Spades: A Memoir. By David Matthews. Holt, 302 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Ace of Spades has a blurb on its back cover from Paula Fox, and its coolly detached prose in some ways resembles that of her Borrowed Finery. But you wish that the book had more in common with the work of such an elegant writer.

David Matthews affects the elevated diction of a Victorian triple-decker in this memoir of the racial confusion he felt while being reared in a Baltimore ghetto by his black father after his white mother abandoned him in infancy. His words clash repeatedly with his stories of living in a rat-infested house and carrying a Beretta when a friend needed backup on a drug deal – “perforce,” “peradventure,” “vouchsafed,” “surfeiture,” “temerarious.” The problem isn’t that he’s sending people to the dictionary – something I’m all for — but that his mandarin prose makes no sense in context. If he’s trying to show that he was once, as he puts it, “the shallowest sort of aesthete,” why keep it up after that phase passed?

You get the sense that, through such language, he’s less interested in telling the truth straight up than in creating a “character” who will interest readers or movie producers. This impression becomes especially troublesome near the end of the book when he searches for facts about his mother, who he learns died after abandoning him. He gets the name of a psychiatrist who treated her for schizophrenia and finds that — “miraculously,” he says – the doctor is still alive and living, as he is, in New York. The psychiatrist agrees promptly to meet with him, then pours out the details of his mother’s personal and medical history. Far stranger stories have appeared in memoirs, and everything in Ace of Spades could be factual, apart from the few “names and identifying characteristics” that Matthews says he has changed. Still, you wish that Matthews had, as he might have put it, “vouchsafed” the proof.

Best line: Matthews says that in college he developed an “intellectual anorexia” common among black men when he saw any display of intellect as “uncool, which is the definition of white.”

Worst lines: “… he aimed his fifteen-year-old phallic trebuchet at the college coed/divorcée/cocktail waitress set.” Matthews also writes that in middle school he had “an incipient though feckless concernment with the opposite sex.” Yes, “concernment.”

Editor: Vanessa Mobley

Published: February 2007

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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