Portrait of a Young Buck

Rapper Rich Terfry serves up a fantastical memoir of his early years.

Twelve years ago, in a cramped Halifax club, the Canadian rapper Buck 65, aka Rich Terfry, etched a memory into my brain. Playing a hometown show to release his album Talkin’ Honky Blues, he brought a full band, some matching coveralls from Mark’s Work Wearhouse and hours of sweaty energy.

The place was sweltering and the big, oscillating fans at the back did nothing to cool us down. After the first couple of songs, Terfry wiped his brow and said, “We’re sweating to the oldies tonight, huh?”

It was a line that would have been cheesy coming from anyone else, but somehow, in the gruff, Tom Waits–style drawl he had recently affected, it sounded perfect.

He paused the show to demonstrate his Mick Jagger impression and it brought the house down. For years afterward I would perform the gag for my friends and, on one unfortunate, drunken occasion, for a waitress at Maxwell’s Plum pub in Halifax.

After that concert I considered Terfry the best showman I had ever seen. He had a dashing confidence that allowed him to wrap the audience around his finger.

Years later Terfry managed to burst the bubble for me when he plaintively asked his Facebook fans if he was too “over the top” on stage. There goes the mystique of the artist. Do you think Mick Jagger has ever wondered that? Please.

There were always hints that the showman we saw that night was a character Terfry was playing. Not that there is anything wrong with that. We all do it to an extent. Writing in the Atlantic Monthly in October, Alison Gopnik argued that we do not so much find ourselves as construct ourselves and that “the coherent self is an illusion.”

Terfry could be the poster boy for this idea. From his first albums, as a high-voiced rapper boasting about his penis size, to his Paris beatnik phase, to the later gruff-talking truth teller. Now, Terfry’s self-construction has taken a more traditional form: he has written a memoir.

The first half of his book, Wicked and Weird: The Amazing Tales of Buck 65, about his childhood in Mount Uniacke, Nova Scotia, is the most compelling part, but it suffers from an indecisive writer who has not quite found his voice. Like Buck 65 the musician, Rich Terfry the writer cannot settle on one sound. It works a lot better for him in his music.

Terfry tries to infuse the writing with the spirit of his younger self, but it jerks the prose from a clear-eyed narrator reflecting on his early years to a wide-eyed boy who is scared of everything. The dialogue in this section of the book can be downright painful at times.

Early on, young Buck achieves some minor notoriety for his baseball abilities during the town fair, when he is able to trigger the dunk tank at will with a sure-fire fastball. When he dunks a pretty girl named Sherry—wearing a white t-shirt and not much else—he collects dozens of high fives but has to wrestle with the sight of the town’s men losing their dignity over the spectacle.

Sherry, who had been cutting Buck’s hair since he was young, is a kindred spirit. Someone with big ideas beyond the squalid small town she is confined to. During his next haircut, he apologizes for dunking her.

“You’re not mad?”

“Mad? At you? Oh my goodness, no. Why would I be mad?”

“Well, I guess just ’cause if it weren’t for me, all those men wouldna looked at your boobies.”

It is like a rural Nova Scotian version of Leave It to Beaver.

Terfry can be a clumsy writer at times, but he does have his moments. On the topic of baseball he writes ecstatically about the sport and ruefully about his own missed opportunities to play in the big leagues. Every new encounter with a beautiful woman leads him to rapturous, florid language that flirts with excess, but never quite gets there.

The flaws are nothing we have not seen before in memoirs, and it is an undeniably charming effort, but Terfry veers in one artistic direction that reduces a reader’s ability to forgive the book’s flimsiness: he is making a bunch of it up.

The book carries a warning from the author that his “imagination is more reliable than [his] memory” and segments of it are clearly fiction. It is, after all, a literary memoir so that is no sin in and of itself, but the book feels brief, like a summary from a man in a hurry. Terfry’s childhood, which he wants us to believe was troubled and fraught with peril, is full of goofy hijinks. He loses his prized baseball mitt and enrages his father, he throws snowballs at cars, he lusts for older girls, he heroically wins an egg toss.

The truly painful stuff, such as his relationship with his mother when he was a child, which seems troubled, is barely examined. A friend commits suicide and gets a paragraph or two of attention. Terfry’s dad, who comes to life in his song “Roses and Bluejays,” is a cardboard cutout. Nothing in the book comes close to the evocative power of that song’s lyrics: “He’s a lazy river, slow moving train / Future hall of famer, playing through the pain / He’s a grizzly bear.”

I found myself wondering again and again if his decision to inject the book with fiction was simply to avoid his negative memories. Rather than face up to the bad stuff, he constructs a new version of it. Or it could be, as one of Terfry’s first loves tells him, because “authenticity is bullshit.”

These paper-thin passages add up, though. Women enter Terfry’s life as rich, complex characters and leave it with a sentence or two. The supreme low point of his career, a botched interview with Kerrang! magazine, found Terfry ripping into hip hop, decrying the “musicality” of rappers, and challenging the interviewer to name someone in hip hop who could read music.

Terfry breezily describes himself aw-shucks-ing his way through a rabid journalist’s hostile questions, keeping his composure and providing only the bare minimum for a hit piece. He refers to it as “Clank” magazine.

Terfry’s explanation of what happened, in subsequent interviews, bears little resemblance to how he describes it in the book.

Weaving the whole story together is an obviously fictional account of a two-month detention in a Russian prison. The interludes are rife with descriptions of the horrible food and the pain of lying on hard concrete but provide little in the way of ­introspection.

From a man whose imagination dwarfs his memory, it is a disappointing effort and encapsulates much of the trouble with Wicked and Weird. The book’s truthful parts are not terribly interesting and the fictional parts betray a lack of imagination. It is a surprising conclusion to reach about a book written by one of Canada’s most vivid songwriters and who, until recently, I thought was one of its most interesting people.