Davon Loeb’s memoir, The In-Betweens, is at once a very specific story about a very specific boy, growing up in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, the son of a Black mother and a white, Jewish father. It is also the story of every boy who wanted to be included, part of the game, one of the cool guys. Readers familiar with Justin Torres’ We The Animals and Greg Bottoms’ Fight Scenes will recognize the rich depictions of boyhood: risky, sweaty antics; insecurity, deeply felt; and the need to connect, especially with men — dads, fathers, brothers.
Each chapter is a stand-alone essay, and the body of work collectively paints a portrait of Loeb’s early years, taking us from the blush of his parents’ short-lived relationship to his uncomfortable relationship with the only other Black faculty member at a school where he teaches English. In between those two pieces is a varied collection, ranging from depictions of what happens when cousins are left unattended – in Loeb’s world someone gets duct taped to a tree – to the discomfort of sharing a studio apartment with his distant father.
A portrait of Loeb and his family unfolds slowly, deliciously. We are introduced to the characters that make up his family over the course of the memoir. Loeb is in no rush to plant the family tree, instead allowing the reader to do it for themselves based on the text in front of us. He considers his grandmother, in “My Mother’s Mother,” his grandfather, in “Drinking A Colt 45,” his mother’s troubled sister, in “Aunt Sammy,” and his step-father, in “To Be a Man.” He also imagines the relationship he didn’t have with his father in “With My Dad.”
Most notable is Loeb’s prose, which pulses with life and truth. The In-Betweens is labeled a lyrical memoir. Lyric pieces tend to be prose with a poetic sensibility. Lyric works can cling to form or go outside of established form completely, and images can do the work of exposition. At times, these pieces have a spoken word quality. To understand the lyrical nature of The In-Betweens is to appreciate the finely crafted moments that Loeb shares with his readers. For example, in recounting his parents fighting in “Weekend Weather,” the author writes thunderous lines like the sentence:
“I was a ball of bones cradling back and forth somewhere between the door and the doorframe, while my parents were unstable, like air that is unstable, like air that is hot, air that is cold, like air that is always gusting and pulling into each other, like air that is building and brewing and becoming something else — this air, and how it would rise, like how my parents’ voices rose, how their bodies seemed to form into each other, how then, the violence of emotions was loud and thunderous, how this thing possessed them, how they moved just like those clouds that hung low and above our house, how then, my parents and their judgment, too, got clouded.”
Prose like this, pulsing with breath and bodies, is representative of the cross-genre nature of the book.
Loeb addresses the challenges of being a Black boy in a largely white town with nuance. Chapters like “O. J. and the Wax Museum,” ”Steve Urkel, Kick the Ball,” “Between Walls at a Friend’s House,” and “But I Am Not Toby” take on the carelessness and cruelty of White America. Lines like “I was Black like none of them” and “Too embarrassed to say that I didn’t want to be Black in a white town in February” are heartbreaking. Loeb’s honesty about his differently textured hair (not Black like his brother, not white like the Biffs at school) in “Thoughts on Hair” is illuminative and also revelatory – it’s not common to see a man discuss hair with such frankness. In particular, his chapter, “In-Between Sirens” recounts the experience of being a person of color behind the wheel of a car when a police officer approaches. The cadence of this short chapter is mesmerizing. Additionally, “In-Between Sirens” is one of several stand-out chapters in which Loeb shines as a writer of flash nonfiction.
The In-Betweens is an intimate and honest portrayal of a boy in the world. This book is well worth reading and returning to for its distinct style and its familiar moments of childhood. Bravo to Davon Loeb on this powerful, lyrical memoir.
West Virginia University Press
Published February 1, 2023