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Ohio Portraits, Vol. 1: A Midwestern Micromemoir
By Erika D. Price
English Prime Press
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
I'll be honest: the idea of reading an independently published memoir didn't strike me as at all appealing. In my head, I thought this would be a big screed against the author's hometown, all the people that underestimated them, etc., etc. Sort of like how autobiographical self-published novels often work. Yet Erika D. Price took me by surprise. Ohio Portraits is far from my favorite book, and I don't think it can compete with other fragmented memoirs like Eula Biss' the Balloonists, Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me be Lonely, or Maggie Nelson's peerless Bluets, but the writing here is pretty good, and the emotional tone of the work is nuanced. It is, in other words, a pretty solid read.
Now, fragmented memoirs run the risk of coming off as incoherent, since their writers tend not to explain the connections between each section. Generally, readers are supposed to intuit the thematic similarities between sections. Of course, this is very much one of the genre's strengths, as it allows the writers plenty of room to weave disparate themes together. Bluets, for instance, achieves that synchronicity almost astonishingly well. Ohio Potraits' biggest weakness is that it doesn't appear to have that same sort of tightness. It looked to me like the fragments were selected almost at random, which results in moments like "a milk-white, freckled, redheaded kid who somehow looked exactly like Ja Rule" taking up an entire fragment. I had to wonder what, on a more macro level, Price intended to say about Ohio. I see this as a significant shortcoming of the book, which feels rather incomplete sans broader takeaway.
Still, Price does many things well here. I appreciated the variety within the fragments; some paint brief stories, others delve into single characters or conversations, still others take the form of questions or, in one case, apologies. This helps keep things lively and varied, and allows Price broad access to a variety of emotions. Indeed, these fragments all come in different tones, some a little funnier, some a little sadder, some nostalgic and some angry. A few of them even aim for that sort of Steinbeck-style sweep, where Price tries to speak for a whole generation: see Portrait 63, which includes lines such as "We take jobs in the eastern cities, with their steep rents and narrow streets; we hide in expensive, drafty bars in Chicago or St. Louis, bragging about what we know." I'm not even sure how well this came off for Steinbeck, and I'm definitely unsure how it comes off for Price. Still, I appreciated the variety of moods, and as I've said before, the writing is pretty solid. With a little more to connect the fragments, this really could've been something.
Out of 10: 7.0