When author Tama Janowitz was 15 years old, her pothead father suggested she enter a wet T-shirt contest if she couldn’t find a summer job. As one of New York City’s “It-Girl” writers in the 1980s, she rubbed elbows with the likes of Andy Warhol and a who’s who of magazine editors by day and retreated to a meat locker-turned-apartment at night. Later, she traded city life for upstate New York, where she shopped for lime sour balls in bulk for her aging mother and struggled to diffuse legal threats from her brother after their mom died.
These are just a few of the absurdities and adventures Janowitz chronicles in “Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction.” It’s the first book since 2005 for the author who rose to literary “Brat Pack” royalty with novels such as “American Dad” and most notably, “Slaves of New York.”
Janowitz has a knack for uncovering the beauty and intrigue in the banal and bizarre. A trip to a supermarket in Ithaca, N.Y., for instance, turns into a “Twilight Zone”-esque experience where insecticides and imported beers share an aisle and signs list product categories that make no sense. Another particularly entertaining scene is when she details the extreme measures involved in protecting an old rhododendron bush in front of her mother’s house. Sometimes, she delivers ludicrous lines with a matter-of-fact tone, which gives them that much more punch.
Several chapters deal with her travels in Israel as a child, time studying abroad in college and what it was like inhabiting New York City decades ago, back before now-swanky sections such as Soho were overrun with high-end high-rises and corporate money. Although she regales readers with stories of Studio 54 and Diane von Furstenberg’s rooftop toilet, she’s careful not to romanticize the city and celebrities too much.
“It was not the city it is today,” she writes. “It was falling apart. It was the city of the homeless. And the homeless were at home.”
Sometimes so-called “rags to riches” tales can quickly shift to navel gazing. Janowitz stays clear of that by balancing stories of her successes with brutal honesty. She’s divorced, and she’s broke. She feuds with her family. She’s worried about her kid. She’s like the rest of us. Feminist undertones come through her accounts of trying to break into the writing scene as a woman, making the book even meatier and more relevant.
“Scream” reads a lot like a diary. Janowitz jumps around in time and place and memories unfold with a stream of consciousness flow. Consequently, and unfortunately, some places and people lack description and come across flat. On the other hand, information in some of the later chapters is repetitive and redundant.
The title itself is an interesting choice. The word “scream” only appears a handful of times throughout the book, but in a way it’s present on almost every page. Sometimes life feels like a surrealist supermarket: We can let it scream nonsense at us, or we can scream back.