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Wednesday, 04 July 2007 00:00

A Frank look back

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From Violins to Violence: A Memoir by Marshall Frank.
Fortis Book, 2007. 308 pages

In Tom Stoppard’s Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon, a character says: “My problem is that I am not frightfully interested in anything, except myself. And of all forms of fiction autobiography is the most gratuitous.”

And so it is. Many of us reach an age, the October of our lives, when we suddenly become garrulous in speech, particularly around the young. We are like the old men who once gathered on courthouse lawns, the old women who once sat at quilting bees; we who were silent so many years, bound by the necessities of making a living and raising our children, feel compelled at age fifty or older to offer listening ears the sum of what we have observed and learned. Our sentences often begin “When I was a boy” or “When I was a little girl” or “Folks back then ...,” followed by a singular moral pronouncement with an apt accompanying tale.

Comedians and young people enjoy poking fun at their elders for indulging in these outbursts of folk-wisdom; Shakespeare’s bumbling Polonius with his pretentious delivery of advice to his son — “Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice ... Neither a borrower nor a lender be ... To thine own self be true” — perhaps epitomizes this image of the doddering old fool. Such mockery is doubtless as natural to the young as reminiscing and moralizing is to their elders.

This same urge to impart the past and its life-lessons causes older men and women to set down their memories in print. Some of these personal memoirs remain in manuscript, passed from one generation to the next the way families once passed along silver settings and china cups. Many such accounts are self-published, and after being distributed at reunions and graduations, these for the most part languish in the basement, more likely to be visited by mildew than a nephew or an inquisitive granddaughter. Other autobiographies, particularly those of celebrities or politicians, may find a mainstream publisher, but are remembered only for a season: like snow, they offer a pleasure that soon melts away and is forgotten.

Yet there do exist some autobiographies which resound both with contemporary audiences and with later generations. In America we think of Franklin’s autobiography or of The Education of Henry Adams, which some critics consider the greatest of all American books. Personalities as diverse as Grant, MacArthur, Helen Keller, Harriet Tubman, Whittaker Chambers, and Sheldon Vanauken have all contributed autobiographies that will, for various reasons, continue to attract readers.

To this mix of self-revelation we must add autobiographies that belong strictly to none of the categories above. Louis L’Amour’s Education of a Wandering Man, for example, lets us look at the life of a writer in the days before workshops and MFAs; Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, a minor classic, gives us a lettuce-crisp look at the life and adventures of a cook and restaurateur.

In this category of works belongs Marshall Frank’s From Violins to Violence: A Memoir (Fortis Books, $24.95). Frank guides the reader through many aspects of his past life — his failed marriages and love affairs, his battle with drink, his love of the violin — but his book will be chiefly remembered and read for its portrayal of his boyhood in Miami and the 30 years he spent as a policeman in the Miami-Dade County area.

Frank’s account of his boyhood — a wicked stepfather, an alcoholic but loving mother, loneliness — are the themes of several dozen autobiographies of the last 30 years. Where Frank excels in his account of his boyhood is in giving us glimpses of what it was like growing up in Miami in the 1950s, a time when Florida to the rest of us who lived north of the orange groves was a magical place that never saw snow or cold. Miami was a place where wealthy New Yorkers went to warm up over their Christmas holidays, a place where Midwesterners went to gamble and drink without their neighbors looking over their shoulders. Though he only briefly reveals to us his boyhood Miami, Marshall does a fine job of recreating the excitement attached to this city at this time.

Mostly, however, readers will remember From Violins to Violence because of its personal accounts of police work and the life of a detective. In his time on the force Frank investigated homicides, suicides, rapes, and other crimes. He witnessed police corruption and the terrible Miami/Liberty City riots of 1980. He shows us the euphoria that comes from tracking and catching a criminal, the deep sadness associated with most suicides, the toll that such work took on the police officers (Frank tells us that he knew “at least 10 cops who killed themselves). Readers of Frank’s fictional accounts of the police life and the law will thoroughly enjoy learning about the background that he brought to his novels.

Americans have a love-hate relationship with the police — we stomp our feet at traffic tickets, but we love cop shows — and Frank’s account should, as a result, enjoy a wide readership. Loyal readers will also be happy that he writes here with the same ease of style that marked Call Me Mommy, The Latent, and other works.

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