A book’s title should be a passport, of sorts, inviting our curiosity, making us want to know more. A case in point is the wondrously named collection, “I Just Lately Started Buying Wings,” by Kim Dana Kupperman. Winner of the 2009 Bakeless Prize for non-fiction, this book of 16 essays combines the energy and pacing of fiction with the veracity of real life.

Kupperman, who is managing editor of the Gettysburg Review, and an alum of University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Creative Writing program, is on a mission here. Part archaeologist and part sleuth, she’s out to uncover the truth of her origins, which family members have variously hidden, obscured, or simply fudged. The whys and wherefores of these guises play like a theme and variations throughout the book.

In the piece “Habeas Corpus,” Kupperman finally obtains the so-called Secret File that will explain the custody battle her father waged, in the 1960s, on her behalf. What unfolds instead is a series of mini-dramas that read “like a B-movie script of a marriage gone awry,” she says.

Along the way, we meet the author’s sad beauty of a mother, Dolores, a liar and drug addict who sometimes forgot to feed her young daughter; and her father, Abner, a much-married high roller. This wild ride through the family’s underside serves up ample portions of mayhem and suspense from the hiring of private investigators to an attempted murder.

Then this stark reminder: “The miniature versions of who we become as adults are always available, if we pay attention,” Kupperman says. “As soon as I could write, I made lists and stories.”

Emerging from a dark childhood, Kupperman became nomadic in her travels, writing her way through several continents and emotional states. We encounter the author in a nameless American hotel restaurant, munching a cheeseburger and pondering a mid-life affair; in France, where she mulls over the allure of airport departures and escapes; in Russia, where questions of identity re-emerge. Kupperman employs different styles, as the subject warrants. These essays are, by turns, journalistic, poetic, and epistolary, with a musing, often mordant, bent.

In “Wings Over Moscow,” Kupperman travels with a friend, in hopes of solving the puzzle of their shared Russian-Jewish descent. The seeds of trouble appear early on, as the author recognizes the fallacy of their quest, “the urge to go back to a motherland we’ve romanticized, to look for something we think has been lost,” she says. As the trip continues, Kupperman feels increasingly like an imposter. the end, she realizes, “this entire adventure in Moscow is nothing but an excursion into other people’s attempts at departure.”

In “Teeth In The Wind,” the author has an overnight guest, the four-year-old daughter of a friend, who fears the noisy wind outside. The child’s real fear, though, is of ghosts in the wind. Kupperman assures her visitor that ghosts are made of spirit and that the wind won’t hurt her.

“I was proud to have invented safety out of thin air, and liked how literal it felt,” she says. “It didn’t occur to me that I was disguising my own apprehension. Nor did I see how I had crossed a threshold into complicity with every adult, including those of my own childhood, who left out not only information but also the truth of the stories that defined their lives

This haunting collection has its share of dire scenarios. When we read Kupperman’s opening story, “Relief,” with its grim tableau of two deaths — her mother’s suicide and her brother’s death from AIDS — we rightly wonder what lies ahead. This book is intense, to be sure, yet spliced with ironic jolts that serve as leavening agents. As the author repeatedly proves, there’s humor to be found everywhere, even at the city morgue.

 

Joan Silverman writes op-ed articles, essays, and book reviews for numerous publications.