I WAS BEYOND GRUMPY when I began reading Sloane Crosley’s third collection of essays, Look Alive Out There — which, it turns out, was exactly the right frame of mind in which to pick it up: within moments, Crosley had charmed me out of my bad humor. But pretty much any mood would’ve been conducive to appreciating Crosley’s work here. In personal essays that range from the short and pithy to the long and involved, Crosley mines the absurdities of life in her 30s in New York City for both humor and deep human feeling. The pieces sometimes employ light reporting, as with an interview with the man who buys her expired website in order to extort money from her (“Wolf”), and another (“Relative Stranger”) with her first cousin once removed, a porn star named Johnny Seeman (yes, that’s his real name). But they are all firmly rooted in Crosley’s experience and perspective, which is just what we want.
At a certain point, around page 31, I started worrying that the feeling taking hold of me — that I wanted to you-should-read-this to all my like-minded friends — would obscure my ability to say anything intelligent about the book, as is required in a book review. “This is great!” does not a critique make. So I started taking margin notes when I laughed aloud, which, it turned out, happened extremely often, as in dozens of times. I noted where I was when I laughed, taking in my surroundings in what I began to see as a Crosley-inflected gaze: more sharply attuned than usual, with a dose of her particular brand of gently self-deprecating humor.
Uptown bus, Upper West Side, across from two children in sparkly green St. Patrick’s Day top hats.
C train to Brooklyn, across from an attractive gentleman in pink pants (more salmon-colored, actually). I notice I have been unconsciously mimicking his gestures in an attempt to “connect.” I now cease to do this.
Friend’s couch in Park Slope, her tiny black cat purring between us.
Crosley’s jokes are simultaneously sharp and warm: the sharpness is directed at her surroundings, while the warmth is toward us, the reader. She invites us in. Take, for example, this bit, from an essay called “A Dog Named Humphrey,” about Crosley’s cameo in an episode of Gossip Girl. On set, she becomes increasingly hungry, and asks one of the actresses where she can find food. “‘You’re hungry?’ she asked, mulling the word over. ‘Huh. I’m not.’ This is the kind of digestive narcissism that makes people hate actresses.”
But a third of the way through the book, I hit a snag. “Up the Down Volcano,” about a hike in Ecuador shortly after arriving in the country, which details her altitude sickness and her guide’s complete lack of empathy or assistance, broke the spell, at least temporarily. It’s maybe the most Essay-Worthy Story in the book — and yet. Perhaps it’s the structure — it starts with a hazy and slightly confusing passage about packing; or perhaps it’s the fact that the piece centers on an obviously ill-advised decision (to make the trek in the first place); or perhaps it really is just the far-flung nature of the subject matter that makes this essay less successful to my mind. In contrast, closer to home, consider this passage, from “The Grape Man,” about her relationship with her sixtysomething downstairs neighbor Don, whose delicious grapes grow up past her window:
To thank Don, I hung a bottle of red wine in a paper bag around his doorknob, along with a note that I’m sorry to report included the phrase “grapes of bath.” Before long, we became engaged in a game of Obvious Santa. Don really amped things up. In return for the wine, he left me a bag of freshly picked tomatoes tied with red ribbons. In return for the tomatoes, I left him a beer koozie with dancing rainbow bears printed on the side. He left me a flower vase. I left him flower food. He left me a bottle of organic laundry detergent. I left him hand balm. He left me a yoga mat. I left him the same yoga mat with a package of hostess cupcakes tied to it.
This is Crosley at her best, keenly observant, pointing out the absurdity in the day to day — particularly in New York, where we’re in each other’s business all the time — and never above making jokes at her own expense.
The ways in which the collection might be called “uneven” manifest on both the macro and the micro level: incisive passages are sometimes followed by ones that are harder to follow, and zingy observations are occasionally undermined by jokes that don’t work quite as well. Consider these perfect one-liners, just a small sampling from a vast list:
I only cared about the celebrities the way all New Yorkers care about celebrities: I ignored them or, if they were especially famous, congratulated myself for ignoring them. (“Outside Voices”)
I wanted to start the process of being thankful for my health so that I could go back to taking it for granted like a normal person. (“Cinema of the Confined”)
Everyone knows WebMD is a Choose Your Own Adventure book in which all roads lead to death. (“Cinema of the Confined”)
In comparison, this passage, from an essay titled “If You Take the Canoe Out,” is a bit on the corny side:
Beneath the bridge that stretched over the river, someone had spray-painted: if it is right, it happens. the main thing is not to hurry. nothing good gets away. –john steinbeck. I stood with my hands on my hips, inhaling through my nostrils, letting the words sink in — though I was not so far gone to California that I didn’t imagine how frustrating it would be to run through an airport with John Steinbeck.
Big picture-wise, essays like “Up the Down Volcano” and some of the very short pieces, which on the whole I found a bit too anecdotal, abut essays that are paragons of the form. One of these, “Outside Voices,” details Crosley’s unwanted affiliation with her neighbor, Jared, whose teenage-boy-level noise she withstands for five years since all her windows face his family’s townhouse. “Jared was quick to laugh, which would have been his best quality were it not for the laugh’s resemblance to a hyena being choked to death by bubble wrap,” she writes. “His cackle was like one of those purposefully ugly sculptures, the kind of art that considers your irritation an accomplishment. Really, I can’t say enough bad things about it.” She becomes obsessed with Jared, forgoing work to detail his every movement, finding herself unable to think or talk about anything else. Yet the hilarity with which Crosley describes her uniquely urban plight is undergirded by pathos. She writes of Jared and his friends, “I felt the pulse of their lives steadily behind me. Not just physically behind me, but in time.” She continues:
Their very existence highlighted my own aging in a way that jarred me. Before Jared, only events in my own life — a friend’s marriage, a sick parent, the 20th anniversary of a seminal movie — had triggered ruminations on the passage of time. […] But after Jared, my own mortality could smack me in the face at random.
This is what the humorous personal essay was born to do: to lure us in with cleverness, then sit us down for meaning.
Right after the essay about volcano-climbing in Ecuador, I settled back into Crosley’s rhythm and resumed laughing aloud in public (and taking notes). From the interview with her cousin, the porn star:
“So how long did you stay in therapy?”
“I stopped a couple of months ago. My therapist was older than I am, which is hard to find at my age.”
“Oh,” I say, “I’m sorry.”
“He’s not dead,” Johnny corrects me. “He just thought I was cured.”
“Of my problems,” he says, smiling coyly.
Waiting room, gynecologist’s office. “Teaching outfit” — slacks from Ann Taylor Loft, gray cardigan — on less-than-proud display; the slacks are not that nice.
From “Immediate Family,” about the elderly people Crosley gets to know in her building since she works from home: “She was feisty — a word my peers employ when describing people who curse after the age of 80.”
Gelato place on University and 11th. Despite being firmly in my 30s, I still get a thrill from eating ice cream for dinner. The gelato is good.
From a section of “Wolf,” about the vulture who bought her domain name so he could sell it back to her for thousands, in which Crosley details her best trick for dealing with customer service:
These people don’t know you or how far you’ll go. They have no measure of your crazy. No one needs to know you have a full life with almost no cats.
That sound you hear is the sound of your name being omitted from a group e-mail that reads: “You want to take this one, Nancy?”
Downtown 1 train, core of an apple I have consumed in a napkin in my lap. I was crying this morning, but now I am laughing.
The essays in Look Alive Out There embrace the reader, putting a lens on the world that is just slightly brighter while also accessing a place of deep emotional truth. The work is not as precise, nor as cutting in its humor, as in a Nora Ephron or David Sedaris collection. But so much of the pleasure of this read is in its casual ease. It doesn’t read as if it has been edited within an inch of its life, zipped tight and ready for takeoff. But does it need to? Does every joke need to slash and burn? Doing so here might undercut the sense that we’ve picked up right in the middle of an actual conversation with Crosley.
The book closes on the essay with the most emotional depth, “The Doctor Is a Woman,” on Crosley’s ambivalence about the prospect of motherhood and her decision to freeze her eggs. As a single 32-year-old, this material had particular resonance for me, but I don’t think it’s the “relatability” of the subject matter that makes it soar. Crosley’s humor — here employed in the noble task of guiding the reader through frightening terrain (impending infertility) — is undergirded by honesty, vulnerability, and profound human feeling. At 36, she visits a fertility center and, via ultrasound, is confronted with an image of her empty womb: “The technician left me in the dark as I got dressed. I felt a hollow ball of grief expand in my body, but I couldn’t say what for. I couldn’t even say if it was real. Should I cry at the frozen tundra of my insides?”
I was so moved by these lines that all I could muster in the margin was a series of checkmarks. Who cares where I was when I read them? Or where I was when, at the end of the essay — having decided to go through with the procedure after all — Crosley managed to lift me to a place of vast and wild hope? All I know is that after I read the last line, I teared up. I needed that as much as I’d needed to laugh. Look Alive Out There let me do both.