A profound and intensely moving boyhood memoir, Kaufman’s Hill opens with a prosaic neighborhood scene: The author and some other young boys are playing by the creek, one of their usual stomping grounds. But it soon becomes clear that much more is going on; the boy-narrator is struggling to find his way in a middle-class Catholic neighborhood dominated by the Creely bullies, who often terrify him. It’s the Pittsburgh of the early and mid-1960s, a threshold time just before the counter-culture arrives, and a time when suburban society begins to encroach on Kaufman’s Hill, the boy’s sanctuary and the setting of many of his adventures. As the hill and the 1950s vanish into the twilight, so does the world of the narrator’s boyhood.
“My pappy says if you’re going to be afraid of everything, you may as well live in the sewer” are the words that first open the narrator’s eyes. And once he befriends the enigmatic, erratic, but charismatic Taddy Keegan, he becomes bolder and no longer lives in abject fear of the Creelys. The narrator’s relationship with Taddy proves to be unconventional, though. Taddy, caught in his own imaginary universe, is often unaware of companions around him. The narrator focuses on uncovering the mystery of Taddy: Why does he live his life like he’s a performer? Who is he really? The narrator’s world is a mix of exhilarating freedom—because of absent parents, teachers, and priests—and imminent dangers. And his home life is problematic. The narrator observes his taciturn father as he copes with manic behaviors and cyclically repeating problems, while his mother struggles to better the life not just of her young son, but that of her African-American cleaning woman in a time of racial animosity and racially-related urban violence. The boy watches his parents with eyes too young to truly understand, and is increasingly disappointed by an increasingly remote father who rarely speaks to him.
As the narrator matures, his self-concept shifts within a widening world that includes disconcerting sexual experiences with public school girls, and his struggle to frame himself within the realm of the Catholic Church. He finds flaws with all but one religious figure, an aunt, who is a sublime and mystical presence in his life. The narrator joins sports teams that bring him back to the same kind of childhood “friends” he wanted to escape, and he questions whether he himself could act like a bully. When he begins high school, the narrator, at a dramatic moment, leaves boyhood behind, which might just include leaving Taddy Keegan behind as well.
John C. Hampsey’s Kaufman Hill is lyrical and profound. It captures the dynamics of the lost world of boyhood in a way no one has before. No wonder the late, great historian Howard Zinn called it “the best book written on American boyhood in decades.”