Kevin Sessums and "I Left It on the Mountain": Burning the House He Built
It is not enough to wonder, while reading a memoir, if the writer is being honest with his readers: One must also worry about performance anxiety, and wonder if the writer is going to pull off the precarious trick of keeping our interest, juggling the balls of the story in a fashion that will amuse and enlighten. There is no such worry with Kevin Sessums's latest memoir I Left It on the Mountain (St. Martin's), a coruscating book that is unafraid to tell the full story of how he obtained the life of an acclaimed writer and then destroyed it. The reader is cast as a shocked, aroused, ultimately willing participant.
As with his earlier memoir, Mississippi Sissy, Sessums is a performer, a charmer, who happens to also know how to write well and sharply and brutally, about himself and others. Born into small-town Mississippi, Sessums knew at an early age that a fabulist flair would release him from the realities of his life, as well as the disdain he felt from his father, who was often abusive to his effeminate son. When hiding in a closet (close to his mother's dresses and shoes, but suffused with the scent of his father), he could imagine other identities, other lives, and Sessums eventually lived a life one could imagine emanating from the dreams within a Mississippi closet, writing for Andy Warhol's Interview and for Vanity Fair, where his cover stories on stars sold copies and captivated readers. While Sessums never exhibited the malice that always flared beneath the elfin charm of Truman Capote, another master charmer-seducer, it is not difficult to imagine that our memoirist also obtained such loaded quotes from his subjects because he walked in metaphorically naked and shared his stories for theirs.
Sessums identifies himself as a star-fucker, and a lucky one, for he did not climb the ranks of writers by studying journalism (he trained as an actor) or earning stripes in lower-rank newspapers and magazines: His first job was for Interview, and he is initially embarrassed when his name is boldly displayed within its pages. At Graydon Carter's Vanity Fair, he confesses to a fellow writer, James Wolcott, that he works in the trailer-park division of the magazine. Sessums can denigrate himself, but you are never unaware of the fact that he is proud of how much he has accomplished and how far he has risen, sharing a limo ride with Jessica Lange on Oscar night and being allowed to hoist her statuette when he tells her it is his birthday. I have never met Sessums, but through the pages of this book you can sense how charming and attractive and persistent he must be, and why so many people like and trust him. Sadly, you can also sense how very little he failed to like or to trust himself, so he frequently sabotaged himself through his destructive behavior, forever consigning himself to that trailer park only he could imagine and to which only he felt he belonged. Sessums manages to write of his charmed times, with good pay and good company, without distancing himself from the reader with too much showboating and name-dropping: He remains the bewildered, needy child he describes in the earliest days of his life, and you enjoy the sense of chatting with him. Amazingly, Sessums seems to listen as a writer, and he manages to answer the questions--and the criticisms--that arise as you observe him making the mistakes and burning the house he has carefully built.
Sessums is always open about his homosexuality, and this is central to this book, as it was with Mississippi Sissy, and I can't praise enough the nifty recipe he has concocted of revelation and retreat in writing about his feelings, his encounters, and his ultimate acceptance of how his life as a gay man has changed. This is not a gay book as much as it is a human one, and a very good one.
We belong and are ultimately enclosed in this book because, while we do not write celebrity profiles or live among the fabulous, glittery people around whom Sessums orbited, we are also frequently confused about our identities and our role in the life we both inherit and fabricate. At one point Sessums states that he once divided his life into two segments: Before his HIV status and after, looking at the man and the activities that spawned the infection and the man and the activities that must now deal with them. He now sees two different windows through which he can view his self-creation, his destruction, and his re-invention, and these two windows reveal his life before his walk on the mystical Camino in Spain and after. You can read five accounts of those who have walked the Camino, and you'll come away with five disparate stories, motivations, effects. The one constant is that the walk--arduous and meditative--alters the way one thinks; places oneself in a stronger position to see and question things; builds character so that one can look in the right places for the right things.
Some of the pages in I Left It on The Mountain are blurry with flashbulbs, sexual fluids, and the detritus of drugs, but the pages--and the writer in control of them--grow clearer as the book and its author progress. Kevin Sessums is looking for the right things in the right places, and he has generously extended a hand--along with some apologies and some juicy stories--and allowed us along for the ride and, if we are honest, our own revelation.