Temper CA, by Paul Skenazy. Oxford, Ohio: Miami University Press, January 2019. 260 pages. $15.00, paper.
With the death of her grandfather, Joy Temper returns to the small mining town of Temper, CA. Temper is the town where she spent her childhood in the 1970s, and it is the town that her family founded during the days of the California gold rush and has gained local fame for doing so. In returning to what she considers her hometown, Joy must confront its gentrification and the commodification of her family’s past as well as her own demons which include the hazy memories of a rocky childhood, a fractured family, and her own dissatisfaction with her life in the present day. Joy’s return to Temper is the beginning of her journey to discovering who she really is and how the past and its inhabitants shape who she has become.
The writing style can be frustrating with almost no interiority, so we must glean Joy’s thoughts and feelings from her actions and what she says to and about other characters: “The coffin was lowered into the ground and people took turns covering it with handfuls of dirt. Some stopped to mumble something into the grave. Dad didn’t take a turn and neither did I.” However, as the plot progresses, it becomes clear that this was an intentional choice on the part of Skenazy. Joy observes the frustrating lack of communication her father imposes, desperately wishing to know what he is thinking and to know what he knows: “Dad has this elusiveness I’ve gotten used to over the years. He’ll hold back a story he isn’t ready to let out. What he says when he finally decides to talk makes me wonder why he’s so closemouthed. It’s a tick that has always made me feel like he doesn’t trust me to understand. Or to love him if I did.” Along Joy’s journey, we begin to understand what Joy herself is only just beginning to understand, that she is inherently linked to those who raised her, and whether she is willing to admit it or not, who she is has been influenced by her father and her multiple stepmothers, as well as her mother and even her own tumultuous lovers. So the fact that we must desperately dig into Joy’s words and action serves to mimic the way Joy must beg her father to open up to her, which he never does, just as Joy never quite opens up to us.
In the same way, Joy spends a good deal of the story cryptically alluding to an unusual but impactful childhood. She gives us bits and pieces, but it is only what she can remember. It is not until later when she herself revisits her past fully with aid of some old polaroids that we fully understand what her childhood was like: “When I was growing up, our house was a noisy place, full of people. Everyone worked together. At the end of the day, everyone showered, often at the same time to save water, or washed off in the creek behind the property. We had no neighbors, on one to see or hear us. Then came dinner, wine, and weed.” As Joy remembers, we get the glimpse into Joy’s unusual childhood that is only touched on up until that point. It is here that we begin to get into the exposition that tells us why Joy is the way she is. The direct confrontation with the past via her old pictures launches her into a description of her whole background two-thirds of the way through the book. However, at this point, we know to trust Joy’s process. She is not one to trust so easily, just like her grandfather, and she avoids addressing what must be addressed as much as she can.
In finding these old photos, she finally accepts that she needs to examine her past and the tumultuous emotions that are linked to it: “I stared at the pictures, looking for a hint of suppressed anxiety. Could I remember anything wayward, menacing or dangerous? The night I ran off, yes. I was terrified, frightened enough to have repressed the episode for three decades. But in the living room, surrounded by Dad, Mom, Uncle Thomas: all I saw looking back was love.” It is not for our sake that Joy undertakes the task of reliving her past, but rather it is for her own. She examines the events of her past in order to better understand how she got to where she is, and neither she nor Skanazy’s concern is truly for us, but for sake of discovering identity. Joy is not interested in telling her story, but rather she is interested in discovering her story for herself.
Finally, the focus on relationships in this novella is truly the Key to understanding Joy’s crisis of identity. Her affair with Penny, which she casually dives into after twelve years with her long-term partner, Angie, is both exciting and distressing. In a culminating scene when Penny assaults Joy in her family’s historic graveyard, Joy’s conflict between her past and her present are thrown into stark comparison. Joy struggles to deal with the ghosts of her past all while her present life is crumbling around her. Penny not only serves to mimic the problem’s Joy’s parents had but to unlock the questions that Joy must answer for herself.
Though Temper CA is classified as LGBTQ fiction, being queer was never the central part of the conflict. However, it is still present and important. The depiction of real and messy experiences is essential to representing the colorful and multifaceted lives of queer individuals. The struggles with identity that drive the plot are not centered around sexual identity but rather something much more deeply rooted. It is centered around the struggles to understand where we come from and why we are the way that we are.
This novella is sad, but not because it is about a queer person being discriminated against that we should pity. It is sad because it addresses the real-life issues of getting older and dealing with questions that may never have answers. It is sad because it looks at relationships with family and with loved ones that may be frustrating an unfulfilling. This book in itself can be frustrating and unfulfilling, but only in the way that it makes us ask hard questions about ourselves and who we are along with Joy, and in that way, it is deeply satisfying.
Hayley Neiling is master’s student of rhetoric and composition at Winthrop University. She lives in Rock Hill, South Carolina. She works for Winthrop’s Writing Center as a Graduate Assistant and will return in the fall as Assistant Director. She has presented at conferences such as SAMLA, SWCA, and IWCA, and is excited to see where the world of writing takes her.