When Kevin Sampsell was a kid, he had a pornography collection that began as a few magazines, which he hid in the ceiling tiles in his room. The collection grew, though, until he was worried he’d be crushed under the immense weight of falling flesh, if the ceiling were ever to cave in. And so he began paring the collection down, cutting out his favorite images — which still amounted to a suitcase’s worth of hot print action — and discarding everything else, making clandestine garbage runs to the dumpster down the street.
When Sampsell — a successful small-press writer and publisher who grew up in Kennewick, spent a couple of formative years in Spokane and now lives in Portland — started writing his memoir, he used a similar technique. Cutting and cutting and cutting away the slag until all he had were little gems of suburban squalor.
All memoirs must, to a degree, cull like this — paring a life of years into vignettes that build meaning and give the illusion of a weight of years — but Sampsell takes it to the extreme. The story of how his dad asked him to wrap a vibrator for his mother’s birthday present, as an illustration of their growing rift? Sampsell handles that in 48 words. One-sixth of a page, roughly.
The first version of A Common Pornography was little more than 60 small, self-published pages of gauzy (though erotica-filled) coming-of-age reminiscences. The new version, from Harper Perennial, adds another 200 pages, including the dark revelation that Sampsell’s father — a man whose short, combustive temper had plagued Kevin and his brother Matt — was more than just a mean guy; he was a rapist, and, by forced sex, the father of Kevin’s half-sister’s child. Sampsell wasn’t told of this until 2008, causing him to rethink almost everything.
The book begins with a panic attack Sampsell had shortly after his father’s death, in which he feels as though the man is holding him down in bed. Sampsell spends the book weaving this new knowledge, suspending it into the old narrative of his childhood, trying to take some of the weight off himself.