Book Review : Jennifer Robin - Death Confetti (2016)
Sleeping in parks, stealing food from grocery stores, hanging out with junkies, freaks, homeless people, and all kinds of strange denizens, riding the bus everywhere, chatting with artists, bumming around Old San Juan, Barcelona, New York, Madrid, Costa Rica, Texas... Explaining to people why I did/do these things is not easy, and those who get it don't need me to explain it. Jennifer Robin's Death Confetti: Pickers, Punks, and Transit Ghosts in Portland, Oregon, is a celebration of this bizarre, nomadic, somewhat dangerous lifestyle. A child of the 1970s with an unquenchable thirst for new experiences and knowledge, Robin set out an early age to discover the world, and the process lead her to Portland, Oregon. While that was the end of one art of her life trip, it was also the beginning of an intense, strange, and very interesting part of it.
Death Confetti is a plethora of things, but can be easily described as a collection of autobiographical vignettes that trace Robin's arrival in Portland in the 90s and the way she learned about herself and the world in a changing city that would eventually become a go-to spot for artists, creators, brewers, and hipsters. Robin possesses two gifts: a flowing, explosive, poetic prose and the keen, insatiable eye of the born reporter/chronicler. In this book, every experience operates in two levels: as a personal event that had to be unpacked and processed and as something that was in direct correlation to the growth, ideas, and shifting political and geographical changes of the city/cities she was in. That the author was able to deconstruct both sides of each experience and then effectively share that with readers is a testament to her talents.
Robin is funny, profound, and lewd, sometimes all within the same paragraph. She understands that stories work best when told with brutal honesty, and that's exactly what she does for 200 pages. The vignettes range from relationship situations and bizarre encounters on the bus to bar stories and recollections/observations that range from building she lived in and bars she frequented to the life of the baby girl that was born when she was being born (and there are some colorful images in the book that bring the image of the author to the reader and make everything a little more vivid). Along the way, there are explorations of growth, sexuality, art, desire, human nature, and even smells.
Because she writes about herself and other people so well, it's easy to lose track of the fact that, ultimately, what Robin is writing about is her never-ending search for meaningful experiences and the "thing" of life itself. This becomes obvious whenever her poetry takes over. Take, for example, the last few lines of Lone Rangers, in which she remembers a year spent in France:
"Yet tonight my own walls tower over me like the walls of Olivier's mother. My dishes are too clean. My blood betas too loudly. I cannot take this being alone for one moment in time. I want to break out of my body and crack open these walls and fly like a bird of death or disease or revolution over the rooftops and find something to fuse with, another bird of life or terror or joy."
From the bus stop to bars and from scoring drugs to thinking about the Catholic schoolgirl fetish was masturbating, there's nothing taboo for Robin, and in the process of offering us a look into her life, what she has accomplished is a communal song for those who pick life on the road and then end up somewhere where things apparently click for a while. Sure, there's suffering and cheating men and too much boozing and dangerous situations and racists and being in love with a junkie and memories of mother, but the sum of those elements add up to a whole existence, to a life that's worth writing about. For those who never stray far from home, this is a book that should be read because it will take them places. For those who have followed the road and the scent of freedom like Robin, this is a book that should be read because her unique narratives are, in some cosmic way, nuggets of knowledge strangely reminiscent of our own.