'/> Uncommon Hours: ‘Kodak Elegy’: A Portrait of Everyman for Boomers
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Saturday, March 16, 2013

‘Kodak Elegy’: A Portrait of Everyman for Boomers

Kodak Elegy: A Portrait of Everyman for Boomers
By Bob Sommer
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for the publisher's website

Full disclosure up front: I’m a native New Yorker and grew up in a Hudson Valley neighborhood quite like the Rochester suburb William Merrill Decker describes in Kodak Elegy: A Cold War Childhood (Syracuse Univ. Press, 2012). Also by way of disclosure, I’ve known Bill for over twenty-five years, so I’m not impartial, but then if I thought less of this marvelous book I’d follow my mother’s advice and not say anything at all.

This memoir undertakes a daunting challenge: turning the potentially numbing story of a baby boomer’s middle-class suburban childhood into a meaningful narrative. Bill Decker grew up in the relative comfort of a white suburb, insulated from urban decay and financial stress, within an Ozzie-and-Harriet-like nuclear family, with mother at home and father a rising executive in a Fortune 500 company (Eastman Kodak). As a child he explored construction sites in his neighborhood and took well-orchestrated family trips downtown to the dentist and to shop for clothes. He is not someone whose name is known to most general readers, so unlike a statesman or sports celebrity, for whom every detail of life must have significance relative to their fame and achievements, Bill has ventured into territory with great potential for drabness. Yet by pealing away the veneer of middle class life in the age of Madmen, Kodak Elegy leaps a considerable hurdle and rewards readers with a compelling narrative and significant literary achievement.

Kodak Elegy is at once a cultural and regional history and the story of a generation. Rochester becomes an emblem for the rise of suburbs all over the country and the correspondent decline of mid-size cities that were once hubs of a region’s economy and social life. The expansion of highways and growth of suburban shopping plazas and bedroom communities decentered American society, revealing stark contrasts of economic and racial disparity beneath the serene appearance of prosperity. Bill traces the intricacies of that life, with its satisfactions and compulsions, though not insensitive to the powerful impetus of its own feedback loop: “And there were we, caught in the demographics of our time and class, swept into patterns of consumption and desire hard to distinguish…from our neighbors.”

Kodak Elegy succeeds because it is tightly focused on the region and culture of Bill’s childhood. He is a fine observer, and his prose has many exquisite moments. Here he describes what was for me a familiar memory of neighborhood exploration: “Like most children of the suburban frontier we conceived a fascination for shadow worlds: hidden meadows containing junked cars, weedy lengths of seldom-used rail line, causeways harboring limestone ruins of Erie Canal masonry.” From my own childhood I might substitute the abandoned farmhouses and stretches of woods just beyond the perimeter of our neighborhood that seemed to belong to no one and perhaps invoked a primal sense of wooded and open commons that is now just a vestige of another life. Such was the innocence of childhood to know nothing of real estate development and platting maps.

Of the contrast between suburbs and city, Bill writes: “In summer, the suburbs gave off a scent of fresh paint and pines, varied by what flowers happened to be in bloom. The city by contrast had a smell of partially rotted things. Rather than repulsive the smell was intriguing; the very history of the place exhaled it.”

Kodak Elegy is a story in which many share. Nostalgic without becoming sentimental, descriptive without becoming tiresome, well-designed and finely written, it is the story of a generation whose impact on history and culture has yet to be fully measured.

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