When reading some memoirs, one is tempted to call out, “Periscope Up, Mirror Down!” In other words, to admonish the author to break out of describing his or her personal struggles long enough to effectively convey a sense of the setting and time period. Marty Castleberg’s Daveland avoids this pitfall by pulling off an effective balance between relating the author’s journey of internal self-discovery and his physical journey through the Midwest farm country, high-level academia, off-the-tourist track South American destinations, the rainforest, and his current home in inner-city San Francisco.
Born to a poor Wisconsin farm family in a neighborhood where his father compares shotgun shells with teachers at his school during pheasant season, Marty discovers music only to injure his hand at work on the oil field. Through a series of events, he eventually marries, earns a Ph.D., lands a position consulting for Harley-Davidson…only to find himself stalked by an unwelcome, but all too familiar stranger. His assortment of neurological and learning differences, whom he personifies as Dave, the loudmouthed pot-smoking, trashtalking bully who will no longer allow Marty to hide him away beneath a veneer of success.
Dave’s pursuit of Marty and appearance at all the worst possible times provide a unifying thread which keeps readers following the story through all its various settings. The story is told through flashbacks while Marty experiences South America, which resists becoming jolting because we soon realize the underlying story is his journey to find a place where he can hide his differences. The story structure gives a sense of fluidity within space, time, and culture…and it is this fluidity which sets the stage for the possibility of self-acceptance and the integration of ‘Dave’ into Marty’s adult persona.
Daveland intentionally resists becoming simply either a poignant story of human suffering or an inspirational narrative of obstacles overcome through providing the carefully chosen details which give a true sense of place. We do not simply get a vague sense that Marty travels abroad to escape work-related burnout or a personal secret: we see the dusty shacks near a long-forgotten seaport, the farm fields like big green brownies near Iguazu Falls, the Mexican restaurant in Argentina with watered-down cocktails and a street musician outside playing an improvised charango (like a mandolin) from an armadillo’s shell. Perhaps a more empathetic, nuanced, generous portrayal of the minor characters Marty meets in South America would enhance the book – these people did open their homes to a traveling exchange student, and the best fiction presents human foibles but allows us to love the characters anyway.
Marty’s clever, dry sense of humor also carries the tale forward, preventing it from becoming dry or melodramatic. He describes the ‘mothball-gate incident’, in which he discovers his allergy to the mothballs in the family home where he stays as a guest soon after arrival in Buenos Aires and struggles to eradicate them without offending anyone and with only beginner’s Spanish. Later on, he asks to watch the Superbowl, which his hostess dismisses as ‘too violent’ – and which he finally turns off in favor of a show she prefers, a documentary concerning the Holocaust.
Dave also comes across as a real person within the memoir, resisting easy classification and thus cleverly critiquing assumptions about learning disabilities and differences. The same ‘person’ who allows Marty to see the entire picture instead of getting overwhelmed by details, making him a gifted organizational consultant for Harley-Davidson also prevents him from comprehending directions and reading some restaurant menus. Dave’s humanity and the compelling story also present abstractions in a way that does not interfere with the suspenseful, action-driven narrative. One may read Daveland simply as a novel-style memoir, whether one takes an interest or not in the psychology of learning disabilities.
Of course, plenty of novels and memoirs exist where the subject must confront some hidden part of him or herself. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde comes to mind immediately, and in popular culture, Fight Club and Me, Myself and Irene deal with the repressed, more authentic/awkward alter ego and the anger and frustration eventually involved with struggling to hide that persona. This places Daveland within a broader context of literature concerning internal conflict and self-discovery; however, Daveland is unique because of its readability and narrative style, and because it brings these literary qualities to the often dry, clinical world of learning differences.
We observe Marty’s colorful world with interest, puzzle out the workings of his mind with him, and sigh with relief and recognition when he recognizes that facing and adapting to certain aspects of his condition does not make him any less creative or worthwhile. Hopefully this memoir will reach those who make hiring and educational decisions, as well as the reading public in general, and demonstrate how we also can adapt in order to avoid missing out on the contributions of talented, but slightly different people.
Marty Castleberg lives, writes, and ‘thinks differently’ within the artistic milieu of San Francisco, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org