In ‘One Headlight,’ the realities of working-class Alaska life is the backdrop to a mother and son’s bond

One Headlight: A Memoir

By Matt Caprioli. Cirque Press, 2021. 222 pages. $18.

In the opening chapter of “One Headlight,” author Matt Caprioli recounts a harrowing drive with his mother through the worst snowstorm of the year, in a beater car missing the passenger-side window and one headlight. Split between divorced parents, he traveled between California and Alaska a few times a year in his preteen years. On the particular occasion, when he was 12, his mother picked him up at the Anchorage airport with her usual great show of emotion and then drove through a worsening storm to the ramshackle home she shared with her own mother, on Lazy Mountain near Palmer. The fact that they survived seemed to them like an act of God and proved, according to his mother, that “all things are possible.”

Much later in the book, in case readers miss the metaphor, the author explains that his title refers to their car, a Mustang given to his mother by her church, but also “to our life together: scrappy, loving, dangerous, at time illegal. That one light has become a dinky paean to our relationship.” The two of them, he says, “drove to our shared and respective dreams ... With one headlight, we made it.”

The mother depicted here, a former Marine, could not have been easy to live with. While utterly devoted to her son, she seems to have been unable to care in practical ways for even herself. Son Matt was the more mature and capable of the two — for example, using the money he’d saved for college to pay her back rent.

After its very promising opening, the book becomes less an organized memoir than a collection of memories the author has of shared times with his mother and a processing of his grief when she died of cancer in 2017 at the age of 54. The rawness of these recollections has its own power, but writing that is cathartic for a writer does not necessarily serve a reader whose interest is less in the particular writer’s life and more in the light that can shine through one life to more universal meaning. Some things, like anger at other family members, might best be saved for a private journal or therapy.

One wishes that Caprioli, certainly a capable writer, had taken the time to rework his memories and reactions into a coherent whole, with well-crafted scenes and a structure less random and repetitive, with more reflection on his and his family’s life. Memoirs certainly don’t need to be chronological, but chapters that cascade through different time periods make it hard to follow the author’s trajectory as he grew from child into the man he is today. Some facts that might be helpful to know early on are only revealed in later chapters, while other, less essential information is repeated more than once.

Caprioli, who now lives in New York and teaches in the English Department at Lehman College, may be familiar to Alaska readers from the many mostly-art-related articles he wrote for the Anchorage Press from 2012-2015. He attended Anchorage schools through his teenage years and eventually graduated from the University of Alaska Anchorage. His memories of coffee shops, local businesses, and school events will resonate with Alaska’s readers, and his depictions of working-class, poverty-level Alaska counterbalance the usual tropes of Alaska as a sublime wilderness.

A key part of Caprioli’s story has to do with his sexual identity. He writes, “At 13, I said ‘I’m gay’ aloud to myself in the shower. I was trying it out for fit, having suspicions this was the case since I was eight, and certain memories from four and five ... The world closed in on me, and I sat down under the running water. I cried unconsolably.” Elsewhere we learn that his father, an L.A. police officer, had wanted him to be “tough” and “manly” and criticized everything he liked and was. Only his mother never judged and always supported him. For a time, in California and Alaska, he pursued figure skating with his mother’s encouragement. He apparently was very good at it, even winning competitions, until he realized that figure skating was considered “gay.” At age 12, he preferred to quit what he most loved rather than be thought gay.

The identity thread of Caprioli’s story is a much thinner one than that of his relationship to his mother. We learn little of life with his homophobic father until late in the book, when the author accuses him of “toxic masculinity.” Caprioli also states, without much detail or reflection, that he became for a time a sex worker in New York. It may be that he’s saving that material for another book. We can hope so, and that such a book will open readers to a greater understanding of our human lives.

One Headlight: A Memoir By Matt Caprioli

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."