THE TOOTH FAIRY: Parents, Lovers, and Other Wayward Deities (A Memoir), by Clifford Chase. The Overlook Press, 246 pp., $24.95.
'I write this in the hope that aphorism-like statements, when added to one another, might accrue to make some larger statement that will placate despair," Clifford Chase writes at the beginning of "The Tooth Fairy," a memoir in fragments.
Most of his reflections, confessions and observations are only a few lines long. Some are merely odd, random asides ("In his spare time, my ophthalmologist was an amateur magician"), while others are more affecting: "Ashamed of my life, including the shame itself." He tosses out excerpts from his journals, amusing and disturbing scenes from dreams, and obsesses over interactions with therapists, friends, his difficult parents and romantic partners.
Throughout, Chase is haunted by his sexuality. In his college years in California, he tries desperately to summon romantic feelings for women -- but hadn't kissed a girl since he was 14 and had never had sex. Shy, intellectual and introverted, Chase finds an on-and-off girlfriend, all the while harboring a desire for men. "The odd nature of the closet," he writes, "the open secret, not to others but to oneself."
He captures the stirrings of first love, with its thrilling confusions, and his "inability to imagine what my own gay life could be like," something he eventually figures out for himself as he settles in New York City. (Even so, romantic relationships prove complicated as ever.)
As a self-protective measure, Chase tends to shut down when emotional demands are made upon him. He admits that he abhors conflict. "As the reader may have noticed," he writes, "I like to mingle love with panic, self-doubt, and conjecture."
Chase grapples with his parents' difficult marriage, feeling responsible for their happiness and the "pervasiveness" of his grief after they die. When his brother, Ken, comes out to Chase, he notes that it "only muddled my own sexual picture." In the book's moving final section, Chase writes about losing Ken to AIDS in 1989.
"The Tooth Fairy" also recalls some of the author's painful dental predicaments over the years, but this theme is applied metaphorically as well: "Extracting love from me must have been like pulling teeth, and I, too, was trying to extract it from myself."
This memoir is a familiar journey of love, loss and self-acceptance. Yet Chase is an appealing narrator of his own life -- humble, candid, funny and always interrogating the choices he's made. His plain-spoken confessions are never off-putting or demanding of a reader's sympathy. With his fragmented prose style, Chase has produced a powerful meditation on memory itself.