Published by Mariner Books
Publication date: June 19th 2012
Genres: Debut, Humor, Memoir, Non-fiction
“When looking for a house, you’re not looking for mere lumber and plumbing but rather for spirit and community. You’re not looking for a location but a locus, a place that will be your center.”
Before I begin this review I need to issue a disclaimer. I don’t know Matthew Batt but as one non-Mormon living in Salt Lake City, UT, to another, I do. In fact, we lived there at the same time which means we could have known each other, in the way that outsiders in a very insulated society try and band together for comfort and friendship. But we didn’t. But it does give me a special affinity for the book. Not that my reviewer integrity is compromised or anything. 😉
Sugarhouse begins with Matt and his wife, Janae, reaching that stage of renters’ agita where buying a house is the only solution. They’ve got a move-out date for their apartment but have yet to find a house they like and can afford. That and the fact that their financing is being handled by a Miss Ricketts in Peoria have ratcheted up their anxiety to Defcon 2. Into this perfect storm comes a bungalow in a neighborhood known as Sugarhouse. The owner admits it needs some work but claims that, despite what Matt might hear, the previous renter was not using it as a crack house. The aluminum foil on every window was simply because the “Lady liked her privacy is all.”
Matt and Jenae get their house, knowing that it needs work but, as it passed inspection, they’re reasonably confident only cosmetic changes are necessary. The pervasive stench of cat urine in every room and the knotty pine paneling that covers everything in the kitchen, including the appliances, can be easily fixed by removing both. So begins the journey of delusion and despair that is a home renovation. Matt attacks the task with the best of intentions but with the background of a fine arts student. Like Alice in Wonderland he comes up against a full cast of fantastical characters, from Glendon at Home Depot who tells him, “Drum sander. Jiminy Christmas. You do not want a drum sander.” to LaEarl, the carpet guy, who drinks nothing but whole milk, up to three gallons a day.
What makes this book such a delight (and yes, I know how unmanly it is to refer to a renovation memoir as a delight) is Batt’s sly sense of humor. Every sentence, no matter how straightforward it appears on the surface, hides the sort of humor that makes a reader laugh out loud. When he realizes that the newly discovered hardwood floors need to be stripped he buys a product and describes the warning label as: “IF YOU ARE PREGANT, OR TRYING TO GET PREGNANT, OR ARE YOURSELF THE RESULT OF A PREGNANCY, BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN, LIKE YOU WILL LOSE A LOT OF MONEY AND THEN DIE, IN THAT ORDER.” It’s this kind of life view that makes Batt not only an engaging writer but the kind of person you wish you did know when you lived in Utah.
Renovation humor aside, Sugarhouse also details Batt’s personal life as he and Jenae struggle to balance graduate school and jobs with the full-time work of making a former crack house a home. In addition, his grandmother, the cornerstone of their family, dies and with his mother, he has to deal with his grandfather, whose mental and physical health is rapidly declining but who runs off to Las Vegas with his dead wife’s nurse and buys her daughter breast implants.
Batt handles all of these trials and is able to turn them into fodder for Sugarhouse without diminishing their seriousness. He does so with a simplicity that makes it clear how bad it was. When asked by his mother to write to his grandfather in the hopes of making him realize what his behavior is doing to them Batt agonizes: “Now, I had to say something. I had to find just the right words…I’d write him a letter in fine, legible script. And I’d tell him. I’d ask him. Dear Grandpa, it would say. Love, Matt.“ It is these moments of quiet pain amongst the hammering noise of his life that make it clear that while Matt Batt may not be a home repair guru he is a craftsman of words.