Gloria Norris’ Journey From Nowheresville to “Kookooland”

Don't miss this life-is-stranger-than-fiction memoir from a New Hampshire filmmaker who now calls LA (aka Kookooland) home

Every family, viewed from within, is a world apart, endowed with its own history, myths, heroes and villains. Growing up, we see life through the lenses and filters provided by those mysterious beings that surround us, the godlike adults and somewhat more approachable youngsters we know as family.

It’s only when we get old enough to spend the night with friends that, like junior anthropologists, we begin to study other “worlds.” Sometimes it arouses envy, but more likely we learn that many fathers watch TV in their underwear, some mothers hide gin in the broom closet and your friends swear more at home than on the schoolyard.

Occasionally the discoveries we make are disturbing enough to make us reconsider how we fit in to our own familial realms.

Gloria Norris is 9 years old when her memoir “Kookooland” [Reagan Arts, $27] begins. Her father, Jimmy, has taken the family out to a drive-in on a hot summer night to see the 1969 B-movie gorefest “Blood Feast.” It’s definitely not appropriate movie fare for kids, but, as we’ll learn, just about everything about Jimmy is inappropriate in some way. They get turned away at the gate (where the sign reads, “addults only”) but Jimmy’s tenacity ensures that the ghastly images of “Blood Feast” soon become a part of his daughter’s psychic inventory. 

Norris, now a successful filmmaker and screen writer living in Los Angeles (aka Kookooland), has worked with and written for such art house heroes as Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. She seems delighted to invite readers to spend time in the childhood world of a Greek family in the Manchester projects back in the gritty 1960s. Her cinematic prose style creates such a vivid experience that you can smell the kitchen grease and hear muffled arguments though the thin walls of imagination.

Norris’ family life is fueled and ruled, sometimes violently, by Jimmy. And while he’s a large enough character to fill a book or two on his own, “Kookooland” is really a tale of the author’s escape from the oppressive gravity and dizzying black comedy of life at home.

Her first plans for liberation centered on a (mostly imagined) friendship with Susan Piasecny, the beautiful, talented daughter of a wealthy, ill-tempered hunting buddy of Jimmy. That fantasy is shattered when Susan’s jealous father, Hank, catches his wife with a prominent local architect and kills them both with a kitchen knife. After that, things get so weird that to reveal more might give the impression that we’re talking about one of Norris’ movie scripts, not a true story from the police blotters of New Hampshire’s Queen City.

Indeed, it was such a provocative and unlikely true murder story that journalist Calvin Trillin boiled it down to bones and broth for a tasty 1978 essay in The New Yorker. In Norris’ version, the death and deceit that surrounds her have to fight for attention with the more mundane terrors of a girl coming of age with crooked teeth (Jimmy nicknamed her “Dracula”) and stunted social skills. But Norris makes up for her shortcomings with big-hearted courage and she hangs on with boundless tenacity — a gift that she no doubt inherited from her father.

Familial blessings and curses abound in “Kookooland,” sometimes morphing into one another along the way. Her role as sidekick (and surrogate son) to Jimmy was a crash course in life on the edge, imparting a variety of skills — like fencing stolen goods, selling pornography out of the car trunk and poaching game. The book itself is narrated in a familial dialect that’s jarringly infused with Jimmy’s sexist, bigoted and violent lexicon.

Gambling, drunkenness, domestic violence — it’s the kind of upbringing that could possibly twist a child into a monster. In Gloria Norris’ case it provided the tools she needed to become a great and truthful storyteller.


Categories: Book Reviews