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When a house is more than a place to live

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Matthew Batt
Matthew Batt working on a flooring project for his St. Paul home. In his memoir "Sugarhouse," he describes how even though they had no home improvement experience, he and his wife bought a former crack house in Salt Lake City as a desperate attempt to save their marriage and deal with a string of personal losses.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

Common sense would warn against buying a former crack house as a fixer-upper project, particularly if you are a house renovating newbie. But that is exactly what St. Paul writer Matthew Batt and his wife did a few years ago.

His new memoir, "Sugarhouse," relates their home-repair misadventures.

Nowadays Matt Batt lives in a tidy neighborhood in the middle of St. Paul. His home has plenty of curb appeal, and inside it's neatly appointed.

It's very different from the part of "Sugarhouse" where Batt describes his tour of what was to become his first house. It was in Salt Lake City, and his guide was the owner, Stanley.

"As soon as he opens the door the smell hits me -- something between a derelict litter box, muddy diapers and a basement backed up with wastewater -- and my eyes begin to tear as I crane my neck around for one last breath," Batt says. "'Lady used to live here'" Stanley says, happy as a man without a nose. 'She had a cat or two.'"

As the tour continued Batt reflected on the wisdom of what he was doing.

"I keep my mouth shut for pretty much the whole tour and try to breathe through my T-shirt when Stanley isn't looking," he says. "I needn't let the smell distract me from the fact that I didn't know a thing about what to look for in a house. Hell. my wife and I have bought cars because of their cupholders, the synecdochic equivalent of buying a house because it has a nice mailbox. Which this one does not."

But Batt was desperate. This was Salt Lake City at the height of the property boom. Homes sold within minutes of going on the market. To Batt's uneducated eye, there seemed to be possibilities for this house, but he wondered why it had been on the market for some time. Stanley then provided a possible explanation about that cat-owning tenant.

"'Neighbors will tell you she sold the crack cocaine -- the windows was all shut up with foil and cardboard. But don't you listen to that horse-hockey.' I'm not sure what that means or why he is telling me. He is a strange man."

But they bought the house and began the arduous and dangerous task of fixing it up. "Sugarhouse" describes the renovation, but it's really about Batt and his wife struggling through tough times. Both of them had lost close family members the year before. Then Batt discovered his grandfather was a secret serial womanizer who had now scandalized his family by taking up with his late wife's nurse.

"At the same time my wife and I weren't going through the best patch in our marriage," he says, "and our best two friends, two couples, were both getting divorced as well. So really everything was crumbling around us. And we decided it was either time to shake hands and just walk away or dig in and see if we couldn't make something last."

Fast forward eight years or so, and Batt, who now teaches at the University of St. Thomas, is renovating his St. Paul home. He looks pretty handy with a power saw, cutting new flooring for the kitchen.

But he says back then he didn't know a hammer from a machine gun. He felt inadequate, particularly after watching home improvement shows on HGTV. It seemed everyone but him knew how to fix things. He got used to multiple trips a day to the local big-box hardware store. Meanwhile, his extended family was melting down around him.

At one point Batt found himself literally taking the weight of the basement ceiling on his shoulders as a contractor friend rushed to go cut a proper support.

"And it was a fairly terrifying moment to think I was responsible for holding up the house," he says. "Which, of course, is fairly emblematic of how it feels to own a house as well as to fix it up."

It wasn't easy, but gradually he brought the house back from the brink, and he made peace with his family, too.

Batt will celebrate the publication of Sugarhouse with a reading at the Magers & Quinn bookstore in Minneapolis at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

It's a darkly honest, humorous book, which Batt believes contains a hopeful message. "Given enough patience, planning and determination, you can do it yourself," he said.

Particularly, he quickly adds, if the job is non-electrical and non-structural.