Cretin Boy by Jim Landwehr
Memoir, 185 pages
2020, Burning Bulb Publishing
Reviewer: Greg Peck
Jim Landwehr has written two previous memoirs and five poetry collections, but he hits his storytelling stride with a coming-of-age memoir Cretin Boy.
Cretin stands for Cretin High School, the Catholic military academy Landwehr attended in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in the late 1970s. Webster’s also defines cretin as “a very stupid or foolish person.”
Landwehr and his buddies sometimes live up to that definition.
Narrow escapes from cops while drinking? Check.
Death-defying traffic stunts? Check.
Dimwittedly doling out cash for first-car clunkers? Check.
Still, having grown up among six kids with a single mother after his father died young, Landwehr portrays himself as awkward and introverted, the “good son” and lacking self-esteem.
Using self-deprecating humor, Landwehr details incompetence at shooting guns, driving cars and approaching the opposite sex.
It doesn’t help the latter issue that Cretin is only for boys. Or that Cretin instructors include military officers and many Catholic Brothers, men committed to Christianity who live on campus. Landwehr explains the oddities in describing Brother Gerard.
“He was a frail, senior Brother who was tasked with teaching us Biblical truth while at the same time discussing human sexual anatomy and addressing embarrassing subjects like masturbation, intercourse and birth control. It seemed strange to mix the message of ‘don’t do this’ with ‘but if you do this other thing, then do this.’ It was even weirder because it was coming from someone apparently older than my grandparents, from a man who had pledged himself to a life of celibacy…”
When Gerard gives him a poor mid-term grade, Landwehr hopes during Christmas break that the old man is unable to return to teach because of his failing health. When Gerard dies, Landwehr is wracked with Catholic guilt.
Landwehr uses decades of life experience to put perspective on adolescent escapades. “We were pushing the envelope in our struggle for independence and on our road to adulthood,” he writes.
If there’s one concern, it’s that this book, like many produced by small companies or self-published, needed better proofreading.
Rather than write a chronology, Landwehr organizes stories into chapters such as Marching, Jobs, and Girls. The longest are Vices and Cars.
Maybe the strict combination of church and state discipline drove these boys to mischief beyond their school halls, but readers, regardless of which decade they grew up, will identify with many of these stories and find themselves reminiscing about their own high school days.
Reviewer Greg Peck of Janesville worked for newspapers in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin Rapids and Janesville and won many journalism awards before retiring in 2016. Peck is author of Death Beyond the Willows and the new Memories of Marshall, Ups and Downs of Growing Up in a Small Town. He’s a former board member of the Wisconsin Writers Association and won the WWA’s Jade Ring in nonfiction.