A Review of Davon Loeb’s The In-Betweens

Early on in Davon Loeb’s The In-Betweens: A Lyrical Memoir, he writes, “Sometimes I think that the only real thing we can ever offer each other are our bodies.” Indeed, the memoir has a bodily effect on readers: at times we feel sticky, sweaty, and even breathless reading Loeb’s stories of growing up biracial in the Alabama heat and the suburbs of New Jersey. Spanning his childhood and teen years, the memoir represents Loeb’s search to find out what it means to be a man when the person you call “Dad” is different from the person you call your “father,” and you see few traces of yourself when you look at your own brothers. 

Loeb’s biological father is a white, Jewish man, but he was raised by his Black mother and the stepfather he calls “Dad.” He writes, “I wanted to be like Dad even though I wasn’t. I wanted to look like Dad even though I didn’t. I wanted to think like Dad even though I couldn’t. I wanted the same last name as Dad even though I wouldn’t. And no matter how much I loved him, how much Mom encouraged our relationship—or I called him Dad and he called me Son, we always would have this distance between us.” Different kinds of distance separate Loeb from almost everyone in his life—his biological father, his friends at school, his brothers on either side of the family. He is in a near-constant state of measuring that distance, wondering why his skin is lighter and his body is skinnier and his hair is different from the other boys around him.  

Many readers may see themselves in images reminiscent of a sugar-buzzed, sweat-drenched childhood spent drinking Hawaiian Punch in the 90s—Nintendo, Power Rangers, Goosebumps, Sega, Transformers, Dragon Ball Z. Some readers, on the other hand, may see themselves in the way Loeb masterfully depicts his struggle to belong in a world that tells him he’s too much of one thing, not enough of something else. In a game of man in the middle, for instance, his cousins banish him to the space between them, calling him “white boy in the middle.” When his mother shows him photos of famous Black authors, he writes, “I would look and try to find some similarities…something that might look like me. But I couldn’t… I was Black like none of them.” 

While Loeb is perceived to be “too white” to be accepted by his Black family members at home, he is the resident Black person at school. During Black History Month, white classmates turn to him to see his reaction during the annual screening of Roots. At soccer practice, white teammates call him Steve Urkel. In Music History class, his white teacher directs a conversation about rap music to him, inviting—no, forcing—him to defend the genre as she utters the racial slur. The lyric style lends itself well to moments like these, letting the reader see enough of what’s happened, of what’s been said, but allowing the white space to make us sit with what isn’t on the page. 

Written in engaging, melodic, sometimes too-brief vignettes, The In-Betweens lives up to its title when it comes to form. Some sections read like essays while others read almost like a half-finished diary entry that unconsciously turned into a poem. Rife with tense shifts and altering points of view that mirror the chaos of an ever-changing adolescent mind, Loeb’s use of language is thoughtful and intentional. The strongest sections are those that invoke the second-person, addressing the men in his life: his stepfather, his father, and his brothers. In “With My Dad,” he recounts a series of memories with his biological father—being carefully tucked in, dressing up for Back-to-School night, having an extravagant birthday party—only to end the section with: “And while none of this is true, these are some things I wish we did.” In these raw, imaginative second-person sections, he finally says what he never could out loud, asking the impossible questions and accepting that perhaps there are no answers.

In “For My Brother,” Loeb similarly addresses Alex, his estranged older brother from his father’s side of the family. The section begins with the first time the two meet, as Loeb recounts the circumstances that make them brothers: “You weren’t made anxious by the occasion—for the rarity of the thing, uniting with a long-lost relative, your brother…Your mother was our father’s wife at the same time my mother was his girlfriend some ten years ago, when you were around my current age.” Before they finally meet when Loeb is ten years old, he has only a single photo of Alex, whose appearance he lovingly compares to “some extra from Saved by the Bell.” He writes, “I’d hold the photo like you were a celebrity and proudly think how could you be my brother?” 

Loeb looks up to this elusive brother—larger than life with perfect hair and skin—as if he were a fictional character, some figment of his imagination. The façade cracks the day he listens from the other room as Alex suffers a psychotic episode in the shower, at first talking to himself, then screaming uncontrollably. When Loeb returns home to his mother, he learns about Schizophrenia and about his brother’s drug use—cocaine, LSD—which had activated the episode. “You were a man in pain,” says Loeb. This brief yet powerful line reflects one of Loeb’s greatest strengths throughout the book, and one of the greatest strengths of the book itself: packing so much meaning, so much heart, into such little space.  

What Loeb gains from his scarce encounters with his brother are empathy, understanding, and a love of language and literature. The first book of poems Loeb ever reads is written by Alex, published by their father, given to Loeb as a gift the first time he sees his brother following the episode. Seventeen years old and new to poetry, he becomes enthralled, reading and re-reading the book whenever possible: “I imagined you writing your poems, somewhere under a tree or at a coffee shop. I longed to talk to you about all of it—why did you use that metaphor and that simile? How did you come up with that title? Teach me how to write like you.” In response, Loeb writes his own poem, “The Story of His Poetry, dedicated to Alex Loeb,” the first of many Loeb would come to write to make sense of the complexities of his family. In a tender portrait reflecting on their relationship, Loeb writes, “A moment of spiritual revelation arises and what has been gesturing in his heart, cries onto the canvas / Enviably, we endure the same emotion he felt upon creation. And a fallen star falls, but yet, once it rose with the intention of success.”

Loeb’s memoir is powerful in its ability to capture in extraordinary detail the ordinary parts of growing up, while at once insisting we notice the unique experience of growing up in this family, in this body. In “The Makings of a Gym Rat,” when Loeb becomes obsessed with weightlifting after decades of being bullied for his small frame, he writes: “I am no better, no different, because this hole in my identity is the bottom of a landfill, and the bigger I build, the deeper and mightier the underneath grows.” As the reader feels the cost of each workout, of the extreme focus on diet and calories, he returns to the significance of the body. Although he may no longer be the slender kid aspiring to become a brawny Dragon Ball Z character, as Loeb’s story comes to a close, he reminds us that the journey to make sense of being in-between may never end. With its keen attention to language and its moving portrayal of boyhood and belonging, The In-Betweens has earned its place alongside the greats of lyrical, coming-of-age nonfiction.   


Kristi D. Osorio

Kristi D. Osorio is a writer, editor, and former teacher. She holds an MFA from Columbia University, and her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, BitchMedia, Public Books, Guernica, and elsewhere. She is at work on a memoir.

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