Author: Constant, Paul
Date published: June 17, 2010
The Curse of Dorothy Parker
Sloane Crosley Is More Than Just a Hilarious Lady
BY PAUL CONSTANT
Apparently, it's impossible to review a book of Sloane Crosley's essays without mentioning Dorothy Parker. It is a curse of female literary humorists in general, to be sure: At the time of this writing, a Google search of "Sarah Vowell" plus "Dorothy Parker" elicits "About 1,990 results" (including the unfortunate suggestion that Vowell is "equal parts Betty Boop and Dorothy Parker") against a paltry 508 results for internet pairings of Parker with young male humorist Simon Rich. But Vowell has been publishing for 13 years; in just two years, Crosley has already inspired 2,210 Parker-related results, with more hits added every single day via reviews of her new collection, How Did You Get This Number. (Full disclosure: In a 2008 review for Crosley's debut collection, I Was Told There'd Be Cake, I invoked Parker's name, making myself part of the Googly problem; of course, this review isn't helping anything, either.)
Crosley certainly possesses Parker's clever, precise way with words, as in her description of an unfortunate arrival in Paris:
Since we arrived a day late, the beds in our hostel of choice had been filled by a pair of German lesbian equestrians. They were in town for a convention, though we couldn't say if it was for Germans or lesbians or equestrians.
The languid repetition of the three words there hammers home both the bizarre sense of finding yourself aimless and robbed of your comprehension in a foreign land and, on a more basic level, the utter silliness of those three words. In another piece, Crosley displays a Parker-like ability to lay out the truth in so dry a fashion that it takes the reader a minute or two to realize that he has probably been mocked:
On occasion, it occurs to adults that they are allowed to do all the things that being a child prevented them from doing. But those desires change while you're not looking. There was a time when your favorite color transferred from purple to blue to whatever shade it is when you realize having a favorite color is a trite personality crutch, an unsubtle cultivation of quirk and a possible cry for help.
While it should always be considered an honor to be compared to Parker, there's also something condescending about the comparison for women: a suggestion that there's really only room for one funny woman in the world of letters. Conjuring up images of Parker becomes the highest compliment possible, a pat on the head that a reviewer can give to a female humorist to acknowledge that they've tried as hard as they can.
It's not entirely honest to compare an author to just one other as your main descriptor of their talents. Crosley cuts like Parker on some occasions, but she has some charms that escaped the elder writer, too. Crosley's palette provides more variance of emotion than Parker's fluctuations between depressive melancholy and bitter wit. She writes about growing up with a temporal spatial deficit, a learning disability that keeps her from being able to navigate, tell time, or perform other simple tasks that require cooperation between the left and right hemispheres of her brain. The essay is funny and self-effacing-"Another thing about having the village idiot camped out in half your brain is that the other half is forced into some resourceful public relations work"-but there's a real vulnerability there, a sense that Crosley is revealing something of herself. Discounting her short fiction-Parker used her fiction as a kind of emotional release valve, for sanity's sake- there's no way Parker would ever have allowed herself such a raw display; she didn't have Crosley's ability to transform honesty about weakness into an emotional strength.
Unlike Cake, Crosley's first, New York- centric collection, about half of Number is about travel-a youthful trip to Paris, a trip to Alaska for a friend's wedding, a solo journey to Lisbon for no real reason at all. There are a few worthwhile essays in Number about apartment hunting in Manhattan and a bittersweet ballad about the ubiquitous New York City cab, but the travel essays represent a new frontier in her work. Without the surety of her Manhattan surroundings, Crosley allows herself to be more of a spectator, and her heart opens up to the strangest things: a troupe of amateur Portuguese circus clowns, a baby brown bear, the bizarre rite of Catholic confession. Rather than just laughing at them, Crosley picks mercilessly at familiar ideas-that status is about more than just money, that nostalgia sometimes pines for the days when things were worse, that friendship is not always a positive thing- with the invention and empathy of a novelist. She does more than just make us laugh; she makes us feel. You know, the way David Sedaris does ("About 5,070" Google matches and counting).
Sloane Crosley reads Tues June 22, Sorrento Hotel, 7 pm, and Wed June 23, University Book Store, 7 pm. Both readings are free.