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Originally published Friday, February 5, 2010 at 7:02 PM

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Book review

Pleasure, pain colors memoir of adolescence in Tri-Cities

Kevin Sampsell's memoir, "A Common Pornography," recounts the pleasures of growing up in Eastern Washington and the pain of a dysfunctional family situation. Sampsell reads Friday at the Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Kevin Sampsell

The author of "A Common Pornography" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Friday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or

'A Common Pornography'

by Kevin Sampsell

Harper Perennial, 217 pp., $13.99


"I thought Kennewick was the ideal place to grow up," Portland author Kevin Sampsell writes in his flavorful Eastern Washington memoir, "A Common Pornography."

He also recalls his teen years exploring Walla Walla, Richland, Hanford and "the tunnel that separates Pasco from east Pasco." Briefly noted was the lack of racial or ethnic diversity in the Tri-Cities area.

Sampsell shared much of his adolescence with an older half-brother, Matt, the only African American in their school. Other outsiders represented Japan, Mexico and Ukraine — one student from each country. "They called themselves the United Nations," he writes. Some disappeared when their parents moved away, some friendships simply dwindled, while others were replaced by adolescent fascination with UFOs and Bigfoot.

The book is at its best when it recalls those moments that made a lasting impression on the author: sharing with Matt the invention of superhero "spirits" with special powers; surviving a house fire that exiled the family to a windowless basement for a year; connecting with MTV and Nirvana.

"Dancing is my life," Sampsell says at one point. "I live to dance!" All-ages Friday-night dances became his obsession for a while.

What Sampsell doesn't provide is much of a narrative. The book is more poetry than prose, less like a story than a collection of impressions of teen angst. As long as the standard clichés are avoided, it clicks. Still, when Sampsell spends time with a disengaged prostitute, the episode comes across as just another coming-of-age vignette, with an emphasis on the disappointments of sex for hire.

The book's title refers to 15-year-old Sampsell's porn collection, which he hides in Pee-Chee notebooks and suitcases that will probably never be disturbed by others. They're going nowhere, because the family doesn't take vacations.

When they do get together for weddings and funerals, the revelations are often difficult to bear. According to Sampsell, the death of his father in 2008 led to the discovery of "disturbing threads of my family history."

In 2003, Sampsell created a 60-page limited edition of the book, using the same title. His father's death, and the family's ambiguous response to a troubled patriarch, inspired him to expand on it and talk to survivors of a deeply dysfunctional family.

"This is not conjecture on my part," he writes. "It is the recollected truth, as gathered through these interviews."

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