APRIL 18, 2017
ANNABELLE GURWITCH once asked her loquacious father if she could use his stories in her writing. The man known as Handsome Harry was not only the last in a long line of bootleggers, gamblers, and philanderers, but also a serial entrepreneur who stumbled from one scheme to the next convinced that filing annual income tax returns was optional. “If you think there’s money in it,” he told his daughter, “go for it.”
Readers will benefit from Handsome Harry’s response. Though things rarely end well for such men’s families, for the personal essayist their life stories are the mother lode. Luckily, too, Gurwitch, the author of the New York Times bestseller I See You Made an Effort, writes with a wit (some might say chutzpah) that has enabled her to make a cottage industry out of being fired by Woody Allen.
Yet, surprisingly, the most effective essays in Gurwitch’s new book, Wherever You Go, There They Are: Stories About My Family You Might Relate To, deal, not with the long-distant family backstory (however rare Southern bootleggers of Jewish persuasion might be), but with the two clans she holds most near and dear. First are the theater people she bonds with whenever she works as a stage actress (in a piece titled “there’s no people like show people”), and second are her immediate family, as revealed on trips to Miami, alone, or with her beloved sister, Lisa, to help their aging parents move into a retirement community (as seen in “going tribal,” “the best of all possible homes,” and “suddenly sequins”).
This affection produces heartfelt writing. Her essay “there’s no people” shows why theater folk tend to play nicely with each other, but film actors not so much. For those of us far removed from Hollywood or the Great White Way, it’s interesting stuff. When I was done reading this chapter, I wanted to go to the TKTS booth in Times Square to see what was available for that night’s performance on or — even better — off Broadway. As for her blood relatives, however trying it is to be the daughter of Handsome Harry and Shirley, his long-suffering wife, when they reach the point in life where the parent/child roles reverse, Annabelle steps up big time. (We’re talking emptying colostomy bags.)
Although Wherever You Go is written as a series of stand-alone essays, they have the cumulative effect of a memoir. By the time you’re finished, you can connect the dots that produced a smart, edgy writer, starting with the mother according to whom Annabelle’s first word was and continued to be “no”; moving on to the father, who, though profoundly disappointing, made a pledge (unfulfilled) to Northwestern University that allowed her to attend a prestigious summer acting program; and, finally mining her relationship with her sister, close enough even now that Annabelle can pick out Lisa in a crowd at the airport just by her shoes.
And just the right telling detail solidifies other essays in the book that have nothing to do with her family. For instance, in “and they shall enter singing the songs of mumford and sons,” about a newly formed branch of atheists known as the Sunday Assembly Los Angeles, Gurwitch notes that the collection box being passed around at the end of services (that are really not services) is a diaper wipe container.
As for her literary style, Gurwitch is a curmudgeon. Yet I found myself agreeing with many of her thoughts. For example, as she points out in her very funny essay, “outward hound,” it is easy to get annoyed with the outrageous amount of money some people spend on their pets, or the excessive amounts of time we spend watching videos of animals doing the cutest things, or how some people see no reason why they can’t bring their dog to a dinner party and have the happy pooch eating at the table.
And I too take Uber reviews with a grain of salt, due to the cross-critiquing nature of the driver-passenger relationship. In fact, in “massacre island, part II,” Gurwitch bonds so well with her driver, a Syrian refugee, he invites her to his home. They even break bread together and discover that a favorite dish in his Syrian family is very similar to the stuffed cabbage her Jewish relatives used to make. By including this story — without ever mentioning politics — Gurwitch provides an effective rebuttal to the executive order issued earlier this year indefinitely banning Syrian immigration.
Finally, like Gurwitch, I have no use for people who like to say, “It’s all good.” It isn’t always all good. Sometimes you can’t make lemonade out of lemons. But this has allowed enough curmudgeons (think H. L. Mencken, Dorothy Parker, and George S. Kaufman) to have their day that it gives the grouch in Gurwitch hope.
I did find one element of the collection annoying: the footnotes. A book of humorous essays doesn’t need them. They detract from, rather than add to, the reader’s enjoyment, and their use, to provide cultural context or a punch line to a riff in the body of the text, is unnecessary. Either incorporate a joke where it will have the greatest impact, or leave it out. As to specific references, readers will have them in their lexicon, or they won’t. For example, when a sentence set in the context of the 1970s refers to being “hooked on a feeling” I immediately heard that song in my head. But for readers who don’t make the association, nothing is gained knowing a group called Blue Swede released it in 1974.
Though Gurwitch has what publicity people refer to as a solid platform (based on her acting career, her previous books, and her years co-hosting the TBS show Dinner and a Movie), I had never heard of her before this assignment. That doesn’t mean much, except that maybe I’m not her target audience. Still, after reading, I felt simpatico with her. This is the litmus test of honest writing. It’s not just that she admits to having a fear of ending up a shopping cart lady. (That hit home. My wife, due to her own set of unfortunate childhood events, feels the same way.) Like Gurwitch, I have my own offbeat family history. And like her, I’m amazed at how some people hold it together on a daily basis in the face of challenging circumstances. As a memoirist, Gurwitch succeeds by evoking emotions that cut to the core of our humanity, and giving us laughs along the way.
In the first essay in the book, “we live down the street from cat town,” Gurwitch opens at a traumatic point in her childhood — and concludes with the description of a lovely scene in which she and her middle-school-aged son, Ezra, jog around their Los Angeles neighborhood as Gurwitch performs a spontaneous monologue on the imaginary doings of the people who live in the houses they pass. Eventually, Ezra begins to spin his own tall tales, coming up with a creative take on how the cats that inhabit one historic group of homes can open combination locks.
Indeed, Gurwitch seems to be a terrific mom. That’s fortunate. We writers of personal essay and memoir should be exceedingly kind to our children. Someday, much sooner than we think, they will be asking us if they can use our stories in their essays.