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Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House magazine, has written a compelling memoir that covers not his latter-day literary career but his unsettled youth, hedonistic teens and bohemian mid-20s.

In the arresting opening scene of "All Tomorrow's Parties," we see him enjoying the semi-lawless freedom of East Berlin in 1990, four months before reunification. As skinheads and anarchists throw Molotov cocktails at one another above ground, 25-year-old Spillman and his wife, Elissa, retreat below street level and dance the night away with East Germans in an abandoned subway station under the Berlin Wall. "I am nowhere," Spillman writes, closing his eyes to the music. "I am home."

But home proves to be elusive, or at least constantly changing. Spillman takes us back to his childhood in Berlin, a "concrete gray island" and Cold War hot spot. His parents, both classical musicians, divorce, after which he is brought up by his father in Germany and New York, and later his mother in Baltimore, that "square blip in world history."

Spillman's formative years consist of peripatetic adventures — shuttling between parents, moving to culturally diverse cities and trying to blend in. But the nomadic life beckons after he watches the fall of the Berlin Wall on TV in a Manhattan bar. Keen to follow in the footsteps of American expatriate writers and to reinvent himself while experiencing "the rebirth of Berlin," Spillman sells his dream to Elissa and the pair pack their bags and head for Europe.

"All Tomorrow's Parties" is composed of two alternating narratives. One charts Spillman's progress from wide-eyed boy traveling America to reckless rebel cut loose in New York City; the other depicts a wannabe writer drowning in absinthe in an off-the-radar village in Portugal and then running wild in his new playground in East Berlin. The first is a portrait of the artist as a young man; the second is a return of the native. Both are captivating journeys of self-discovery full of trial and error.

Particularly impressive is Spillman's up-close and in-depth depictions of his younger self swapping opera ("a hundred-year-old pantomime performed for the rich and comfortable") for punk and new wave, jettisoning C.S. Lewis for Hunter S. Thompson, flunking out of college, crashing cars and embracing girls and drugs. Equally good is his restaging of gritty, pockmarked post-wall Berlin, with its $20-a-month rents, eight-day laundry waits and makeshift clubs and impromptu bars.

Each chapter comes with an epigraph from a famous writer or musician and a "soundtrack" that ranges from Beethoven to the Sex Pistols. Neither adds anything to what we go on to read, but they do underscore Spillman's absolute commitment to art — creating it, being influenced by it, living for it. Sometimes he goes on about it too much ("Spare me the Hemingway histrionics," his wife moans at one point), but in the main his memoir says exactly the right things in the most engaging way.

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

All Tomorrow's Parties
By: Rob Spillman.
Publisher: Grove Atlantic Press, 344 pages, $25.
Event: 7 p.m. April 11, Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.