In the last edition of this column, I made a promise that I should have known I
wouldn’t be able to fulfill. To recap: I went to New York for a writer’s conference and promised to return with a trillion books that I would review
for you. What actually happened was that I collected a pile of free books I had
no intention of reading, but didn’t have the heart to turn down. Drunk with the ability to acquire free
literature, I lost whatever power of discernment I once possessed. But all is
not lost; I did manage to score at least one good read:
Ryan Seacrest is Famous, a collection of stories by Dave Housley.
The title story is a lament about the fact that, yes, unfortunately, Ryan
Seacrest is famous, while the narrator is not. The narrator is dry, droll, and
deeply bitter. Why should he have to live out his existence as an average guy
when out there, just beyond his grasp, lies celebrity? Fame might be glittering
and dumb and useless, but isn’t that just the point? If this sentiment resonates with you, then you’ll like Ryan Seacrest is Famous. If you are not amused by the idea of an regular guy constantly measuring the
wreckage of his life against what is depicted on the cover of Us Weekly, then the book will likely just exasperate you.
The stories can get a bit wrapped up in their own quirkiness, but Housley’s characters, and the modern American landscape they inhabit, are dark and
self-deprecating enough to make it work. In “On Sunday Will Be Clown,” the customers queuing up at a buffet “look like a casting call for Wal-Mart plus-sized models.” This might sound cruel until you realize the one making that assessment is a
divorced part-time clown with a drinking problem and a lot to prove. The hilariously-titled “Namaste, Bitches” is the story of Himani, a young immigrant who turned down a Nepalese arranged
marriage, only to appear as a contestant on a reality TV dating show. Jack Kerouac is even reincarnated in the form of a tanned, fit, stylized fitness
guru who has set aside writing to pursue success in the realm of infomercials.
These characters are neither noble nor particularly likable. They seem unable
to connect with others, and eager to vent their rage through lying, graffiti,
petty crimes, and general mischief-making. But it’s hard to blame them for their flaws. They’ve come of age, as so many of us have, in an era of reality television, where
the prospect of true love is nothing more than a marketing ploy. And if there’s one thing we’ve all learned from reality TV, it’s that it’s better to be the self-styled villain than the relatable Everyman.
After the fun but frivolous Ryan Seacrest is Famous, I felt like my next selection should be something a little more
mind-expanding. I knew I was on the right track when I found this next
selection via NPR (as opposed to Ryan Seacrest, which I first encountered at a reading in an East Village bar). This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor is a memoir by Susan Wicklund, who was prompted to become an abortion provider
in part due to her own traumatic abortion in 1976. The strength of Wicklund’s book is not in its writing, which is competent, but not outstanding; rather,
it is worth reading for the unique perspective she offers on the abortion
I’m not a fan of sweeping proclamations, but I feel comfortable in asserting that
if you make it through this book and remain unimpressed by Wicklund’s humaneness, compassion, and courage, you have a black, curdled soul. Wicklund
does not portray herself as a saint: she is candid about the fact that her
second marriage crumbled largely as a result of her professional commitment,
and that her relationship with her daughter often had to be conducted via the
telephone as Wicklund raced from city to city, clinic to clinic. And when, for
instance, a pro-life protester comes in to get an abortion, all the while still
asserting that Wicklund should be jailed for murder, the author does not hide
her outrage. Yet, in spite of her anger at the woman’s hypocrisy, she still performs her surgery with all the care she would give any
other patient. The book contains a number of patient profiles, and while they
may not all be as dramatic as the tale of the pro-life protestor, the patients’ stories all prove to be complex and enlightening. These profiles serve to
demonstrate that women decide to abort for a variety of reasons, some of which
(cases of incest, dire poverty) are more easily understood than others, but
most all of which are the result of intense soul-searching and the weighing of
priorities. As she performs abortions in clinics across the Midwest and finally
in Montana, where she opens her own practice, Wicklund concludes that there is
no common element among her patients. The only thing that might be said of all
of them is that they want to be good mothers, and that they all know they could
not successfully parent a child at that particular point in their lives.
The sacrifices the doctor makes for her job are unthinkable, in a very literal
sense: I knew abortion providers faced difficulties, but I never realized that,
as in Wicklund’s case, their homes could be surrounded by protesters, their children targeted
at school, and their very lives threatened by stalkers who operate secure in
the knowledge that law enforcement will do very little to stop them. Her
experience provides an antidote to anyone who might argue that women who have
abortions are just selfish, and abortion providers, merely greedy.
This Common Secret is as affirming as it is troubling; those in the market for a thoughtful,
unconventional memoir would be well advised to read it.