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The Tooth Fairy: Parents, Lovers, and Other Wayward Deities (A Memoir)

The White on the Page

When I see a book by someone I’ve never heard of that calls itself a memoir and that comprises “a collection of sentence-long paragraphs,” I don’t want to pick it up. To be fair, that has only happened to me once, but I think we can safely assume that if it had happened more than once my reaction would have been the same. Something about a series of aphorisms is sort of inherently unappealing, perhaps because we are used to the trite truisms and platitudes of Chicken Soup for the [insert weirdly specific identity]’s Soul page-a-day calendars and the fortune-cookie fauxfundity of Instagram meme farms.

But an aphorism is literally defined as “a definition,” and in 1597 Bishop of London John King used “aphorisme” in the abstract to refer to “the essence or pith” of something. That sense of the word is much closer to the achievement that is The Tooth Fairy, the most recent book by Clifford Chase, author of the criminally underappreciated Winkie, a novel about a teddy bear that finds itself accused of more than 9,000 acts of terrorism. If you can manage to see past whatever objections you may have to the form of this memoir, you will be rewarded with 256 deeply moving, honest, deftly composed pages.

The Tooth Fairy: Parents, Lovers, and Other Wayward Deities (A Memoir)

by Clifford Chase

Overlook, 2014

Chase’s recollections concern the brutal process of coming out as a gay man, the terror and disorientation of living in New York City during 9/11, the devastating experience of watching his parents grow old and die, and his older brother’s illness and death as a result of AIDS. Through all of it, Chase is unerringly faithful to the truth of his memory, which does not omit the uncomfortable or the disturbing.

In telling the story of his sexuality, the author has managed to paint a picture of coming out that is far, far more dynamic and interesting than the oversimplified, “I’ve known I was gay my whole life.” He struggled with his inability to love women, even as he fell deeply in love with several women, including a partner who is only referred to as E. And though he often fantasized about men, admitting that and confronting the terrifying prospect of consummating that desire filled him with fear, paranoia, and apprehension. “It is as if my own desire were a doll,” Chase writes. “I was always trying to make it do things, act out a story, sit or stand or pretend to walk.” Chase’s homosexuality is in this case a vehicle for an exploration of the nature of desire itself—as something unknowable, conflicted, and out of our control.

The Tooth Fairy derives its likability in part from the author’s impressive ear for the rhythm of honest, straightforward prose. He is capable of making even a simple statement glow: “These ideas about myself, in the forest of myself.” Somehow, in the context of the memoir, that sentence fragment does not drip with melodrama like we might expect it to.

“The pervasiveness of grief,” he writes, “whether or not you recognize it, like the white on this page.” Chase has a justification for his form, and he has the ear, the eye, and the chops to back it up. The Tooth Fairy is powerfully successful and a must-read for anyone moved by life, death, and living.

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