Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life
by Michael Greenberg
Published by Other Press
232 pages, 2009
Where’s the Sunshine?
Reviewed by Diane Leach
By the time he wrote Hurry Down Sunshine, a memoir of his daughter’s descent into mental illness, Michael Greenberg had been plying his trade, with intermittent success, for over two decades. Sunshine changed all that, catapulting Greenberg to enormous fame. Literature, it seems, is no longer sufficient diversion: we have become a society in love in other people’s suffering. We want the real, the screams and rants, the pills and pains, the hospitalizations and ensuing insurance battles. And Greenberg, who has spent his adult writing life searching out such stories, suddenly had an awful tale crash into his family like a bomb. Voilá.
Beg, Borrow, Steal feels like an attempt to capitalize on Sunshine’s success, and unfortunately, is likely to fail for numerous reasons. The essays, which appeared in the Times Literary Supplement over a period of six years, focus nearly exclusively on New York City and its denizens. Greenberg is that resolute stereotype, the Jewish grandson of a hardscrabble immigrant, the sort of writer who rarely leaves home, instead prowling his city, notebook at the ready, waiting for a Woody Allen/Talk of the Town moment to write up. And though a few such moments present themselves, Greenberg’s prose is so workaday, bereft of humor or compassion, that many moments fall flat. Essays about a Hebrew school reunion, New York City’s rat scourge, and the surprising number of scams people have tried to run on the author are neither terrible nor great, clearly constricted by word count, unable to delve deeply into the matter at hand. Recountings of slightly shady buddies make Greenberg appear a collector of personalities -- a writing contact dubbed the “Zebra,” a washed-up director named Jean-Paul, Peter, a childhood friend whose adult career as tax “fixer” earned him disbarment and a prison sentence. Would the upstanding Greenberg hang around with these fellows without the lure of an essay dangling over every sorry interaction?
Worse, Greenberg himself admits to shamelessness when writing about others. Every writer (well, most) worries when writing about friends and family members: Julia Alvarez suffered a two-year writer’s block before penning How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents -- fiction, mind you, but close enough to how the Alvarez girls lost their accents to freeze her fingers. Greenberg suffers no such pains, making him an unpleasant narrator. Writing about Sunshine, which involved daughter Sally, first wife Robin, second wife Pat, and sons Aaron and Brendan, he says:
I find this passage astonishing on a number of levels. The first is Greenberg’s concern for Sally is far outweighed by the prospect of publication. What if the book triggered another meltdown? What sort of explanation could Greenberg have concocted to justify himself to his wives, his children, himself? That he wanted to be a famous writer? The wish in itself is not bad, but the lengths he goes to are. As for imagining yourself Nathan Zuckerman, well, hey, as my husband once said to me, you’re a good writer, but you’re never gonna be Margaret Atwood. And what of Robin and Pat? Both were upset. If I wrote something about my husband that upset him, it would get my attention. In fact, I have written things about my husband that upset him; some were intended for publication. I opted not to publish them.
Granted, how writers choose to write about friends and families and handle the fallout is both personal and fraught. But the subject crops up repeatedly here. In the book’s eponymous essay, Greenberg writes:
One of his brothers, after reading a piece, comments “You’ve no idea who I am.” Another relative felt like “a false me.” Greenberg admits intercepting yet another relative’s mail lest a magazine story reach the man. Even worse, “When my wife appears in a piece, I do my best to keep it from her eyes.”
Interestingly, Greenberg blames everyone else. It’s the handy old existentialist dilemma: Greenberg’s friends and family simply cannot bear appearing through another’s eyes. In print, no less. No matter how “scrupulous” the portrait. In “The Importance of Pronouns,” Greenberg’s wife, Pat, brings home the transgendered Georgina to dinner. As the two women chat over the cider Georgina’s brought, Greenberg goes into the kitchen, pours out his drink, and returns to the living room with a bourbon. Pat and Georgina are discussing Pat’s life before she married Greenberg -- “the part I stripped away from her.” Nervous about bringing up an old marital rift, Greenberg, by his own account, disrupts the conversation, firing questions at Georgina. To Pat’s horror, he retrieves his notebook and begins making notes. To hear Greenberg tell it, Georgina is something of a preening fool who enjoys these attentions, but we have only his side of the story. And what of poor Pat?
Plenty of other characters appear in the essays: Clarence, a childhood friend of Greenberg’s son Aaron. Clarence adores trains, and in one of the book’s stronger essays, takes Greenberg along on his Christmas Day shift as a motorman. Henry, the young cashier at Greenberg’s favored coffeehouse, is taking from the till, meriting a meditation on stealing, Greenberg’s paternal feeling for Henry, and his ultimate disgust at the theft. Greenberg’s father, Bernie, a bull of a man appalled by his son’s intellectual pretensions, makes repeated appearances, none very charming, as do his brothers, who go into the family steel business. Then there’s his “friend,” Roy, an African American whose hatred of Whites is so ingrained that their friendship is really more of a Sisyphean argument.
Still, there are a few good moments. Greenberg deserves credit for years of devoted hard work -- nobody can accuse this man of being Billy Joel’s real estate novelist. “Hack,” a scathing indictment of writing for Hollywood, is biting yet saddening -- so many fine writers fall into this awful maw, documented elsewhere by the much-missed John Gregory Dunne, and, more recently, by Rafael Yglesias, in his magnificent A Happy Marriage. In “Everything I hate in Fiction,” Greenberg writes of the rejection notice he received from Ted Solotaroff, then an editor at Harper & Row, informing him his book “represents everything I hate in fiction.” It takes true strength and guts to recover from a letter like that, much less write about it.
“Hart Island,” to my mind, is the standout essay. For one thing, it isn’t about Greenberg. Instead, it’s about New York’s oldest burial ground, a potter’s field abutting the Negroes Burial Ground -- an ancient place where slaves and Revolutionary War dead mingle bones. Now inmates of Riker’s Island bury the unknown dead in pine boxes, 150 per grave for adults, 1,000 per grave for babies, of which there are a shocking amount. The city shuns reporters and artists wishing to visit Hart Island, but the closing words of the essay, taken verbatim from inmate Eddie Melendez, are heartbreaking. He is initially indifferent to his prison duty, then learns his sister is buried there. He is hurt by her improper “berial” (sic), but now, “I can pay my respeck’s and now I beiry a baby I think of my sister. I feal they should put a memorial plack for all the children’s and peaple that are beryied here.” (sic)
Greenberg could take a page from Melendez’s book and pay his respecks. Good writing -- beyond mechanics -- is more than a “moment” carefully calibrated to a word count. Your subjects deserve some say, some respect, even the right to refuse to appear in your desperate quest for writing success, an ever-more elusive goal. Now that Greenberg has finally found fame, perhaps he can turn his vision outward, doubtless offering consolation to family and friends continually left smarting by their scrupulous portraits. | September 2009
Diane Leach lives in northern California with her husband and cat. When not reading or writing, she regularly burns herself in the kitchen.