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Arts, Sports & Culture

Punching In: Pittsburgh Author's Debut Memoir Tackles Racism, Homophobia, And Toxic Masculinity

author brian broome
Andy Johanson
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Brian Broome's debut memoir is "Punch Me Up To The Gods."

If you know Brian Broome, it’s probably through his writing. The longtime Pittsburgh resident is a prolific Facebook poster, on everything from his late-night jaunts to Giant Eagle to his hilarious fictional dossiers on exotic birds. His work has run in such outlets as The Guardian and Creative Nonfiction. And he’s now a published author, with his debut memoir, “Punch Me Up To The Gods,” out May 18 on Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

punch me up book cover

But Broome’s writing career didn’t really get started until just eight years ago, when he was 42. There are several reasons for that. As he details in “Punch Me Up,” they include the racism, homophobia, and toxic masculinity he first encountered in childhood, as well as the alcoholism and drug abuse that marked much of his adult life. It’s material that makes for a searching, sometimes harrowing memoir, leavened by Broome’s characteristic humor.

Far from a simple chronological telling of his life, “Punch Me Up” is a complex tapestry woven together around lines from Gwendolyn Brooks’ classic poem “We Real Cool” and a long bus ride Broome took one night, which he largely spent watching a young Black father interacting with his toddler son. That bus ride, played out in episodes that preface each chapter, allows Broome to reflect on the code of masculinity he was raised with.

“It felt to me like, you know, this is a pedagogical moment,” said Broome in an interview with WESA. “The father was teaching everything that his son shouldn't be doing, he was teaching him what not to do, and it reminded me of what I was writing about in this book. It reminded me of my relationship with my father, particularly because the man and his son were Black. I believe that the codes of masculinity are more strict for Black males in this country, and so I immediately just started taking notes.”

“Black boys have to be tough,” he writes in the memoir. “But in doing so, we must also sacrifice our sensitivity, our humanity.”

Broome was born in 1970 and grew up in Warren, Ohio, just outside Akron. He was one of three children, but his family’s modest working-class security collapsed when Broome’s father lost his steel-mill job.

While his parents eventually split up, Broome’s father looms over much of “Punch Me Up.” Broome was a sensitive kid who liked jump rope and was good at spelling; his father’s efforts to instill an aptitude at sports fell flat. Worse was the physical abuse. His father battered him for any perceived lapse in masculine behavior, such as playing with dolls.

Life with other kids wasn’t much better. Broome writes that he was mocked in gym for his disastrously clumsy attempts at basketball, and at age 10 was set up to have sex with a neighborhood girl by a “friend” who was embarrassed by Broome’s unmanliness. (The assignation went unconsummated.) The young Brian liked to put down his thoughts on paper, but stopped writing in a diary his sister gave him because his cousin Vince told him it looked “gay.”

Yet Broome also seeks to understand the sources of this masculine code. Men like his father, he writes, enforce it out of fear that their sons otherwise won’t be strong enough to make it in the world.

In 1990, after an attempt at college, Broome moved two hours east to Pittsburgh, for a fresh start. He was 20. The relatively big city offered more freedom, and the closest thing he’d yet experienced to an LGBT community. But he couldn’t escape racism or homophobia — or the self-hatred he’d learned.

“I thoroughly, thoroughly believed that I was broken, that there was something desperately wrong with me, and, you know, one day somebody might punch me just right, you know, and it would fix me, you know, something inside my consciousness would shift and I would start to act like the boy that I was,” he said. (The book’s title references that belief, by way of a version of a saying of his father’s, “punch you up to God.”)

Pittsburgh’s gay bar scene in the ’90s consisted mostly of places that are no longer there, like Pegasus, Downtown, and The Holiday, in Oakland; one uproarious episode is set in the Arena, an Uptown bathhouse where some more knowing friends took him, also now vanished. But while Broome notes their disappearance somewhat wistfully, he spent his first two decades in Pittsburgh seeking refuge in drugs, alcohol, and hookups. In “Punch Me Up,” he writes:

"Most of my nighttime encounters, I will spend the rest of my life trying to forget. They all begin at bars, lonely late-night roach motels that attract desperate men who do desperate things, and end the same way, with white men rolled over onto their sides. As soon as the magic is over, showing me their backs and leaving it up to me to decide it's time to leave, while all the excitement that existed only moments before evaporates into thin air. Then it's just a matter of getting dressed and hitting the street, invariably having forgotten a few items. A trail of my abandoned underwear, socks, cell phones and hats litters the city of Pittsburgh, from the Mexican War streets to the South Side Slopes. No matter where I end up, the street positions me directly under a flickering and unforgiving spotlight. It is then that I pick a direction and hope for the sidewalk to lead me home."

Eight years ago, at age 42, Broome went to rehab; while the book is written from the perspective of his post-rehab self, it mostly tracks his earlier life, when he drank, did coke, slept around, and worked a series of office jobs to survive. But it was actually in rehab that Broome began writing — because of a roommate whose snoring kept him up.
“I feel like I picked up where I left off after my mind clears, you know, after the fog lifted, I sobered up. They got some antidepressants and anxiety meds in me. And I was like, you know what I feel like doing? I feel like writing, you know, and I hadn't done it in so long.”

“And I just started writing, you know, some of these stories. I asked myself the question, ‘Why am I here? Why am I in rehab?’ And as opposed to just addressing the question directly, I started to write the stories that I felt were kind of watershed moments in my life,” he said. “And then when I got out of rehab, I just started writing these huge tomes on Facebook. And people were like, ‘Would you please do something with this writing?’ And then it went from there. I started performing. I got an agent and now here we are.”

Broome has taught creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh and become part of Pittsburgh’s writing community. The introduction to “Punch Me Up” was written by acclaimed poet Yona Harvey. Broome is also good friends with Deesha Philyaw, author of the PEN/Faulkner Award-winning story collection “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.” On Tue., May 18, Broome appears in conversation with Harvey in a prerecorded, online Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures event.

But “Punch Me Up” is already raising his profile with a national audience. Positive advance reviews have run in outlets from Entertainment Weekly (“This devastatingly beautiful memoir introduces a major literary talent”) to Chicago Review of Books (“electrifying”) and Publishers Weekly (“magnificent and harrowing”). On Wed., May 19, Washington, D.C.-based Loyalty Bookstores hosts a virtual event featuring Broome in conversation with Kiese Laymon, author of the celebrated memoir “Heavy.”

Broome also just earned his master of fine arts degree, from Chatham University.

“I'm surprised, like every day, you know, somebody like me, because literally, I'm just some drunk, you know, that's how I think of myself,” he said.

“And then things happen like, there's a book coming and, you know, there's people who want to talk to me, and people are connecting with the book, which I am really, really grateful for. But I'm continually surprised because, you know, I'm kind of trashy,” he adds, with an ironic chuckle.