“A Slice of Life: Life Stories”
Author: Thom Gossom, Jr.
Publisher: Aquarius Press
Price: $19.95 (Paperback)
Thom Gossom, originally of the Rosalind Heights neighborhood in Birmingham, has already had success in several different fields.
Gossom played football at John Carroll High, then at Auburn where he was a freshman in 1970 and in 1975 became the first black athlete to graduate from that university.
That Auburn team, which featured Heisman trophy winner Pat Sullivan at quarterback, was, as the saying goes, amazing. During his three seasons at end, Auburn went 26-9, to three straight bowls and, blocking two punts, beat Alabama in the 1972 Iron Bowl 17-16.
The win-loss record was terrific but as Gossom told us in his 2008 memoir of those days, “Walk-On: My Reluctant Journey to Integration at Auburn University,” life as one of 211 black students out of a student body of 14, 528 was tough, and often lonely, on and off the field.
He coped with a truculent student body and an unprepared university administration, but made it through and later had a couple of years in the NFL.
Many who don’t know Gossom from his playing days or the memoir may recognize him from his acting career. Gossom has appeared in the film “Fight Club,” had a recurring role on “In the Heat of the Night,” appeared on “CSI,” “Boston Legal,” “ER,” and starred in the episode “Lost Israel” on “NYPD Blue.”
With “A Slice of Life,” Gossom has turned to fiction.
These eleven stories are drawn from his childhood in the segregated and just barely integrated Birmingham of the 1960s and ’70s.
His title should be taken seriously. He says “You eat the pie one slice at a time. That has been my philosophy with the ‘Slice of Life’ collection.”
These are not the polished stories we have come to expect from a world awash in MFA’s in fiction writing. Few are conventionally well-made, with a rising action, climax and denouement. There are some epiphanies, but they are earthy, everyday realizations, not the soul-wrenching kind we see in a story like Joyce’s “The Dead.” These are dramatized incidents, anecdotes, taken from his boyhood but not necessarily true. Polished or not, most of these stories have a raw honesty and power that makes them worth reading.
Most of the stories involve the group of boys, close friends and neighbors, hanging out in Rosalind Heights, Birmingham.
There is Radio, who never stops talking, Onion Head, Fat, Goose Truck and Don Charles, who at 14 is the oldest. They play stickball, foursquare and football in the street, quarrel, sing a little and, in their own domain, live a fairly pleasant life. In the happier stories, one is reminded of Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert and his gang.
Some stories are small, domestic; Tommy’s mother makes him eat grits. He hates them and sneakily feeds them to the dog.
Others are more serious. In “Just Like Television” Tyrone, stupidly, thoughtlessly, becomes involved in a robbery/homicide, probably ruining his life forever. This is one of the stories Gossom describes as “fork in the road” stories.
In “Everybody’s Crazy” Terry, a distressed Vietnam vet, kills some neighbor children in a flashback/delusion.
Segregated as they actually are, the boys are still aware of another world, white and more affluent, led by boys elsewhere. Sometimes the lives are oddly tangential. Radio gets a used schoolbook with the name Willis Williams III written in. Who is he?
In the longest story in the book, Gossom gives us a slice of that other world. Trey Williams is the son of an affluent, obnoxious, alcoholic Crimson Tide fan. Although he is big enough, Trey refuses to play football, choosing cross country instead, and even refuses to attend the Auburn game with his father. Infuriated, his dad beats him while mother, Betty Lou, overcome by pills and scotch, faints.
After years as a hippie, musician and drug mule, after his parents’ death Trey moves into their Mountain Brook home and becomes a football fanatic himself, in fact BECOMES “Big Willis,” his dad. It seems there was no escape.
Gossom leaves it to us to decide whether this is nature or nurture at work.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.