Pass With Care - a review
In Deacon King Kong, a new novel by James McBride, an Irish gangster is asked to describe a set of reliquaries. “They’re tiny boxes like coffins, made of gold and silver,” he says. “Some are trimmed with diamonds. The priests kept jewelry, art, relics, even old bones of saints in them. This stuff was heavy loot. The spoils of war, m’lad.”
These words are a fitting description for Pass With Care, Cooper Lee Bombardier’s new memoir (Dottir Press). It combines a hybrid of essays, poetry, and dialogue that ranges from the deeply personal to the academic. Bombardier seeks to get beyond the now-familiar “born in the wrong body” narrative of trans memoir. “Now that the world knows we exist,” he writes, “our memoirs have to work harder. But freed of the need to prove our existence, our memoirs are also challenged in exciting ways to continue pushing the genre in terms of content and form.” Each chapter is a discrete work that stands alone; together, these chapters give us a multi-faceted and textured book that is part explainer, part confessional, part chosen-family narrative.
Bombardier’s writing has appeared in several anthologies and in venues such as The Rumpus, Kenyon Review, and Ninth Letter. Greying Ghost published his chapbook, The Economy of Nostalgia, in 2018. In Pass With Care, Bombardier details a rich life as part of the 1990s San Francisco dyke scene, as a member of the art collective Sister Spit, and as a person who’s transitioned. His descriptions of these experiences are compelling, but his recollections of less-hectic days in New Mexico and a childhood in New England are also engaging.
Each chapter is a discrete work that stands alone; together, these chapters give us a multi-faceted and textured book that is part explainer, part confessional, part chosen-family narrative.
I grew up in the same era as Bombardier and identified with familiar cultural touchstones (Evel Knievel, Foreigner 4, .38 Special). Like Bombardier, I regretted being born too late for the summer of love, too late, even, for the summer of punk. Born too early for video games and the Internet, we played outside, often alone, roaming as far as our banana-seated bicycles could go, cards tapping in the spokes, constrained by geography.
Like Bombardier, I struggled with bullying, gender roles, and belonging, and like him, I imagined myself “unaffected, immune to the taunts and opinions of my peers, above it all” as a means of self-defense. We get few details but a measure of understanding about Bombardier’s family of origin. “I heard the arrows of my parents’ attempts at love whiz past my head,” he writes, “the shots never quite sticking the mark of my heart, but the efforts were palpable. None of us knew what we were doing, but we were all giving it our best.”
We learn more about Bombardier’s found family in San Francisco with descriptions of a magical world that existed before rising rents took it out. “We roosted the city, claimed it,” he writes. “We were a noisy murder of crows laughing in the streets, fucking in the alleys, dancing and rocking out in bars, mounting shows in underground performance spaces, hosting orgies and play parties and confessionals in our bedrooms, planting our pirate flag along the bows of playground structures of our city.”
As he begins to transition in 2002, Bombardier fears losing communion with the dyke community that has long supported him. “I realized that I could be as masculine and as male-identified as humanly possible as a butch and remain accepted by my beloved dyke artist friends,” he says. “But if I dared to cross that line, slip from symbolizing some kind of butch heroism into dreaded manhood, I would be excluded.”
During and after his transition, Bombardier wrestles with masculinity and the functions of maleness. Scenes of a pigeon hunt in the workplace and a locker room exchange with an older man are particularly evocative. As Bombardier finds comfort in his own skin he finds greater generosity toward others. “Being in my body, making peace with the fact that this is the reality of my body,” he writes, “rolled the stone away from the mouth of the cave of my empathy.”
In the final third of the book Bombardier ventures into adulthood, intentionality, and spirituality. Called to account by a fellow writer, he’s forced to reckon with episodes of violence and anger in his past. Seeking to change, he finds he’s “too angry to meditate.” His very name means “bomb thrower,” which speaks to the power of lineage to dictate destiny and the challenge of attempting to change course. Bombardier finds the greater calm he seeks through purpose, effort, and accumulating years.
In a 2018 interview, Bombardier said he finds compassion in writing because it involves both scrutiny and distance. In Pass With Care, Bombardier writes with compassion toward himself and the queer community. He speaks to the need for disempowered communities to find more compassionate ways of addressing trauma, both individual and collective, past and present. He argues against practices that lead to othering, exclusion, and further disenfranchisement, and encourages politics that further inclusivity, healing, and justice.
“So much we think we believe,” Bombardier writes, “is a function of our ability, or inability, to see.” By taking stock of his own faults and failures, successes and dreams, he enables us to more clearly see ourselves, which is memoir’s highest purpose.
REVIEWED BY ROBIN STOREY DUNN
Robin was sixteen, homeless, and half feral when an all-black spiritualist church took her in. She lived with them for ten years, trying and failing to be a saint. Excerpts from her unpublished memoir have appeared in Rue Scribe, Pidgeonholes, and The Windhover. You can find her writing at robinstoreydunn.com.