Bettyville: A Memoir, by George Hodgman (278 pages; Viking; $27.95)
During the 1960s and 1970s, George Hodgman grew up in rural mid-Missouri, first in Madison (population about 600), then, starting at age 13, a dozen miles away in Paris (population about twice as big).
He was the only child of Big George, a lumberyard supervisor, and Betty, a well-educated, restless, mostly stay-at-home mom.
Little George wasn’t lonely, exactly, but he often felt confused, especially about his sexuality. An only son in small-town Missouri did not easily come out as gay, and in any case George wasn’t quite sure about the implications of being attracted to other males. He loved his parents but never could speak openly to them about his confusion regarding sexuality.
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Hodgman attend the University of Missouri, about an hour away from Paris. Even in that relatively open atmosphere, he could not decipher how to deal with his sexuality. He graduated, ended up in New York City and developed into an excellent magazine staff member (Vanity Fair, among others) and book editor (Simon & Schuster, among others).
His mother kept him grounded, sort of, long distance. Big George died in 1997. Betty made worrying about her son something of a full-time job, but she didn’t know what she didn’t know.
Hodgman, despite his professional success, despite his romance with the Big Apple, often felt insecure.
He became dependent on narcotics. He entered rehab. He retained his job, but book publishing was perishing in New York City. In 2012, he became a victim of downsizing. By then, Betty was entering her 90s, still loving, still demanding — a “character.”
Hodgman returned to Paris for what he intended to be a couple of weeks. Maybe Betty would finally need to enter a nursing home. She resisted. Hodgman remained in Paris without giving up his New York City apartment.
Although he had nurtured numerous superb authors, Hodgman had never written a book. But when he began posting snippets about Betty on Facebook, countless readers told him those posts could form the basis of a memoir.
And what a superb memoir it turned out to be. Hodgman is by turns wry, laugh-out-loud funny, self-deprecating, insecure to the point of near suicide, an attentive caregiver despite occasional, understandable resentments.
The memoir ends in Paris last fall, with Betty battling dementia and cancer and the author battling himself.
Occasionally the memoir is a challenging read because of the way Hodgman shifts time — chronology is not the foundation of the memoir. But those minor challenges are far outweighed by the positives, especially for readers who know small-town Missouri. I have read several hundred American memoirs; I would place “Bettyville” in the top five.
Steve Weinberg, Special to The Star