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Book Review: Nine Years Under, by Sheri Booker

Sheri Booker’s new book mixes compassion and gallows humor to find wisdom

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Rarah


Writing a memoir is like working as a mortician: You find the dead experiences we call memories and you piece them back together, suturing wounds, painting on features, and filling in lost flesh in order to make what was once living seem both lifelike and composed. That’s not to say that memoirs are false or fabricated. Rather, it is to recognize that, like the undertaker, the memoirist must be a master at “bringing the dead back to life.”

Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner City Funeral Home (Gotham Books) then is a fascinating study in style, because it’s a memoir about author Sheri Booker’s years in the Albert P. Wylie funeral home at the corner of Gilmor Street and Harlem Avenue in West Baltimore. As is fitting (but rare) for a memoir, subject and style perfectly coincide. Booker doesn’t openly state the parallel between writing a memoir and dressing up the dead—though she skirts the subject when she writes her first obituary—but it is the very heart of the book.

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas says that all ethics begin when we realize that other people die, and this deeply ethical (in the sense that it shows someone trying to navigate her way through a complex world) coming-of-age story begins when the author’s favorite aunt dies. “Before I experienced death, I was your typical teenage girl,” she writes. “After Aunt Mary died, the ground beneath me shifted. I expected the world to pause for my grief—and it didn’t, not even for a moment of silence. I’d always found comfort in gospel music, but those days the lyrics to Lil’ Kim’s album Hard Core blared through my earphones instead. I wanted something raw, gritty, and profane.”

Of course, there comes a point in every teenage life where the budding individual wants the raw, gritty, and profane, but not every teenager turns this desire into a job at a funeral home. That is precisely what Booker does when Deacon Albert P. Wylie, a reformed thug who now runs the funeral home and serves as an anchor in the community, asks her what she is doing over the summer.

“Working for you,” she replies, the first in a series of gutsy moves that propel her toward wisdom in a period when Baltimore’s homicide rate hovered around 300 per year—a number that doesn’t take into account other, drug-related causes of death. While her peers were furtively exploring each others’ anatomies, Booker was coolly reaching between the legs of a corpse to determine whether a confusing appendage was a penis or a swollen clitoris in order to verify the sex of the body.

This path towards wisdom is nicely encapsulated by the book’s subtitle: Nine Years Under begins just before Booker starts working at the funeral home and ends shortly after she is fired, nine years later. In the meantime, we learn about the death business and the central role that mortuaries can play in tight-knit minority communities. We also get to know Deacon Wylie and his son Brandon, for whom Booker long carried a torch and from whose girlfriend she had to escape on the occasion of their only hookup. There are a host of other colorful characters—an employee named Angela’s earthy sense of humor adds an important counterpoint to Wylie’s insistence on the order, process, and dignity that keep the business from descending into the chaos that inevitably surrounds death.

If there is one flaw with Nine Years Under, it is that we don’t get to know these characters as well as one wishes. The present-day Wylie is vibrant and living on the page, and his mannerisms and idiosyncrasies are clearly rendered, but we never quite see how he makes the transition from a menace to the community to one of its pillars. His reformed dignity always comes across as somewhat intimidating to Booker, but one wishes she had overcome it and asked him more questions about his past.

The book is essentially a coming-of-age tale, so Booker focuses more on her own development than that of the Wylies, but the book would have benefited had she held up Mr. Wylie’s trajectory as a counterpoint to her own.

Nevertheless, Booker’s development as a writer is quite impressive. In 2003, when she was in the midst of the period detailed in Nine Years Under, City Paper profiled her upon the publication of her first book of poems, noting that the book “is as uplifting as it is entrenched in the realities of the streets, [and] announces a startling new talent.” Booker has developed and deepened the promise of that book, pushing her voice forward without losing what made it special. She says in interviews that she wants to work as a mortician, and while such a choice will probably not provide her with any new material (how many books could you write about working in a mortuary?), one can only imagine that it will help her hone her distinctive voice. The processes of the funeral home are not all that interesting, as it turns out, but the perspective that Booker gained from her years dressing bodies is rare and valuable. She has cultivated a soft compassion and a hard sense of gallows humor, which, when correctly combined, can create great literature and a powerful sense of humanity. Writing a memoir is like doctoring a dead body not only because both force one to reckon with the passage of time, but also because both require a precarious mixture of emotional warmth and cold calculation, which, when one is lucky, reveals something essential about life and death.

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