A giddily wacky 10-year update

For the Washington Post
Sunday, August 21, 2016

In 1986, when Tama Janowitz read at Rutgers University, she had an audience of almost 500. You can count on little more than one hand the collections of short fiction that have become splashy best-sellers. But the author of Slaves of New York, with her trademark huge hair and deadpan, self-mocking sensibility, was a big deal. She was on Letterman repeatedly, lunched a couple of times a week with Andy Warhol, wrote the screenplay for her own movie adaptation, and shilled amaretto and Apple computers in magazine ads – always bizarrely attired, like some pop-star cousin of the Madwoman of Chaillot.

Today, most aspiring young writers have not heard of her. But they weren’t even born in the late 1980s, so that’s not terribly surprising. They don’t know how, before social media, Janowitz, now 59, pretty much patented a literary marketing technique that involved being game for anything, even if it risked making her seem somewhat ridiculous. She is the kind of writer who, when commissioned to write an article on a mob hit man in the federal witness protection program in Alabama and finding his phone busy for days, contacts him the only way she can think of pre-email and cell phone: via singing telegram. The man in the gorilla suit delivering her message almost got shot.

Janowitz’s giddily wacky memoir, Scream, gets us current on where she has been for the past couple of decades, which is mostly in upstate New York, with her adopted daughter and eight poodles, taking care of a mother with dementia. She also relates highlights from her childhood and coming of age, most of which fall under the category of stranger-than-fiction – even for her fiction.

Her parents divorced when she was young. Because her father, a pathologically cheap, usually stoned psychiatrist who seduced many of his patients, paid woefully inadequate child support when he paid at all, Janowitz and her brother grew up poor, moving often with their panicked but plucky mother – to Israel for a brief, disastrous stay, then to a series of inadequately heated, sparsely furnished rentals.

Janowitz’s account of all this is not self-pitying but quite funny, in the David Sedaris tradition. When her father began an affair with his secretary, the secretary moved in with the entire family and their pet – a $20 mail-order monkey that was kept chained under a bathroom sink, “where he occupied his time by stuffing food into the heating vent in the wall.” Eventually, “the monkey was sent to the zoo, where he joined a group of hundreds of other squirrel monkeys who had been ordered from comic books, back when you could still do so.”

Janowitz continued the peripatetic life as a young adult, spending a junior year in London at the beginning of the punk movement. She met the Sex Pistols at one of their earliest performances. They struck her as “poor, uneducated, grubby. . . . I was hoping to move up on the social scale, or at least out of poverty, and there was no way these guys were ever going to play again, in my opinion, after tonight.”

She traveled to Paris to meet the novelist Lawrence Durrell, to whom she’d written a fan letter pleading for a face-to-face. But . . . Durrell was out of town. How was she to know that?

She returned later for a brief liaison. He was 63, she 19. “THAT IS A HUGE AGE GAP!” Janowitz notes. “It’s creepy and scary if you can imagine being with someone old enough to be your grandfather. Though, come to think of it, I am close to the same age now that Larry was then.”

Janowitz continued to be cash-poor even in her heyday, the earnings from her best-seller providing a down payment only on a tiny basement studio apartment in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. At the time the area was home not to fancy shops and hotels but the raunchiest of gay clubs, and “even after the streets were cleaned there were still bits of skin and gristle and fat” remaining from the neighborhood’s butchers. “I didn’t realize how unique or special the times were that I was living in now, the eighties,” she sighs, as she adjusts to life in Schuyler County, N.Y., near where her mother had been a poetry professor at Cornell University.

“Schuyler County does not have a health food store. Schuyler County has a Cheez Doodle supply center – Walmart. Schuyler County is where, if you have an old bathtub you do not want, you throw it in the woods.”

If you’re looking for profound insight about growing up with difficult parents, about the vagaries of literary life or about the hardships of elder care, this memoir won’t do it for you. Janowitz doesn’t interpret or analyze much. “I still can’t make sense out of what I am doing with my life, let alone what happened,” Janowitz admits. She’s also quite circumspect about certain aspects of her personal history. During the period under discussion, she and her husband appear to have separated, but she says almost nothing about him or about the events precipitating the fissure. Nor does she reveal much about her relationship with her daughter, a silence for which I’m sure the daughter is profoundly grateful.

Aside from the gossipy dropped names, from Nancy Reagan to Keith Haring, and the nostalgic paeans to the bygone ’80s, the pleasure of Scream rests almost entirely in Janowitz’s voice and her shy bewilderment at her own disappointing fate. In this sense, it’s very much like her best fiction, which has always drawn from autobiographical material about hapless, disaster-prone women. “When I read a book I just want a bunch of interesting stuff to happen, adventure-wise . . . without too much musing and thinking and philosophizing,” she reports. “So when I stop reading, I can feel good, even if I’m in a cramped economy seat on an overnight flight, or in a filthy kitchen where I should be doing dishes.”

That’s a pretty apt ars poetica for this wry, unpretentious memoir.