Monday, August 22, 2011

Beg, Borrow, Steal

Beg, Borrow, Steal by Michael Greenberg is subtitled "A Writer's Life." As a writer myself, I am always interested in another writer's life. The book is 44 four- or five-page anecdotes from Greenberg's life. These he revised slightly from columns he had written between June 2003 and April 2009. Because Greenberg wrote the pieces over almost six years, I would have liked the publication dates. For example, he begins one piece, "The novelist William Herrick has died at the age of eighty-nine." I knew Herrick, and I would have liked to know when he died. (In another anecdote about Ted Solotaroff, Greenberg does add a footnote giving Solotaroff's date of death.)

The anecdotes are entertaining and wonderfully well-written. So why are my feelings for the book so tepid? Perhaps because Greenberg was working against space constraints, he did not have room to go into real depth when the subject seemed to call for it. For example, he and his first wife spent a year in Argentina in the early 1970s. His wife was arrested for demonstrating against the government. Greenberg managed to scrape together $900 so she was charged only with disorderly conduct. As soon as she was free, they escaped to Uruguay where their son was conceived. The story deserves more than four pages.

I had a sense at times that Greenberg was writing to reinforce the stereotype of the struggling, Brooklyn-born, Jewish writer, one who rejects a future in the family scrap-metal business to toil at dozens of dead-end jobs (waiter, street peddler, post office clerk, more) while writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting an unpublished (unpublishable?) novel. He meets interesting people, but, again, because of space constraints, we never really get to know them or what they meant to Greenberg.

Apparently his only other book is a memoir of his daughter's manic breakdown, Hurry Down Sunshine, and he writes an interesting—if too brief—essay about the challenge of writing about one's family, friends, and acquaintances. He quotes Philip Roth on the bind in which family members find themselves: "Their own material is articulated for them by someone else who, in his voracious, voyeuristic using-up of their lives, gets there first but doesn't always get it right." Even if you have no intention of settling scores, it seems almost inevitable that someone you write about will see what you write as settling a score. Unfortunately for Greenberg, the memoir seems to be the milieu in which he is happiest and most effective. I suspect it turns family gatherings into minefields.

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