A unique look at growing up in Frankford

Sink: A Memoir, by Joseph Earl Thomas

3 minute read
Book cover: title over drawing of a rowhouse decorated with a giant snake, frog, bird, and bugs, with an alligator out front

Set in the Frankford neighborhood of Philadelphia in the late 1990s, Joseph Earl Thomas’s 2023 memoir Sink is about coming of age as a Black boy in America. Told through a series of fierce and unflinching vignettes, the story follows Thomas from about age 8 to 13. He is raised begrudgingly by his grandfather, Popop; his mother, Keisha, who is addicted to crack, is notable mostly for the gaping hole that her absence leaves.

“Of all of the protagonists in this story—both real and imagined—just Joey, the boy, owned an Easy-Bake Oven,” Thomas proclaims at the start. “The Oven was purchased with the help of Capital One, for his little sister, Mika. Joey had convinced Mika that she wanted one, and therefore, at seven, he received a gift that, through Popop’s eyes, sat scandalous in the lap of his little black man in training.”

This opening passage reveals a few things about the book: it’s told in third person, Joey is often at odds with his grandfather, real and imagined characters will appear, and Joey’s sister, Mika, will be an accomplice and witness throughout his childhood.

Blurring fiction, fantasy, and reality

The most notable structural choice is the use of an omniscient third-person narrator. Most memoirs are written in first person, but in Sink we follow Joey, with some additional flashes of the second person mostly toward the end. The third-person perspective works well as a way to distance Thomas from his childhood—he doesn’t pontificate about his situation with an adult perspective. It’s often not clear how old Joey is in various vignettes, which recalls the disorientating powerlessness and confusion of childhood.

These choices also blur the memoir’s line between fiction, fantasy, and reality. With friends in short supply, Joey grows up with a rotating cast of imagined characters. Gaming and anime are an escape and a guiding force throughout his childhood. In video games, Joey feels powerful, a hero, and can destroy his enemies. He finds role models in characters like Goku from Dragon Ball-Z, who was abandoned by his family, but had an undeniable tenacity and resilience, not to mention a muscular physique. When his pet quail dies, Thomas looks to Edward and Alphonso Elric of Fullmetal Alchemist for guidance on bringing him back.

Creative, enduring memoir

Joey’s proclivity for hobbies like gaming, anime, and drawing develops a key tension within the memoir. Popop is extremely bothered by this deviation from his own notion of masculinity and tries his best to beat Joey into it. His grandfather is the most feared person in Thomas’s life, an enactor of violence, but also the one who shows the most care through working a steady job that provides a place to live and food, as scarce as it may be, on the table.

Most memoirs of growing up in tough situations resolve with a happily ever after, where the author makes it out, finds success, and eagerly escapes the clutches of the claustrophobic world where they grew up. This memoir does not focus on escape, redemption, or a savior. For some readers, the lack of “progress” may be disappointing, but I think that is the point: to focus on making do in the circumstances and still being able to find moments of joy, connection, and community.

The memoir feels hyperlocal, mostly taking place within the cramped apartment or a few blocks away, and it will give readers a sense of what it’s like to grow up in Frankford. This book requires empathy; it has a lot of heavy subjects, with sprinkles of joy. Sink is a courageous, powerful, stylistically creative, and unique memoir that remains with you long after you’ve turned the last page.

What, When, Where

Sink. By Joseph Earl Thomas. New York: Grand Central Publishing, February 21, 2023. 245 page, paperback; $18.99. Get it here.

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