Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dueling Celeb-oir: Untied, by Meredith Baxter, and Drama, by John Lithgow

It was only when I emptied the ashtray that I realized I had been duped by my brother. There, under the aluminum bowl in the hollow of the wooden ashtray stand, were the crinkled, beige remains of desiccated liver vitamins. Dad gave my brother and me one each morning. Each vitamin was embedded with a small nugget of dried liver. The pills smelled like old, wet wool socks and tasted like dog excrement left by a rabid, dyspeptic dog. The rule-following eldest, I took my tablet dutifully, suppressing a gag as the small gravely bits dissolved in my mouth. My brother, infinitely more savvy than me, had spit out his vitamins and stashed them in the ashtray's base. When I saw those relics, it hit me. I had been a patsy. (And also that I hadn't given my brother nearly enough credit.)

I can't blame my brother for not letting me in on his secret. He knew I was a goody-two-shoes and would have narc-ed on him in an instant. He knew I'd "out" him. But when I saw the ugly truth, that I had needlessly consumed DRIED LIVER each morning, I had an epiphany: I didn't need to follow every f-ing rule. (And also, if someone gives you a shit-flavored pill, spit the damn thing out!)

What, you may ask, does this have to do with celebrity memoir? Well, maybe it's that sometimes it's okay to break the rules, to spit out the stuff that's supposed to be good for you. Don't get me wrong, I'm not comparing literature to foul-smelling vitamins. But sometimes a little fluff can also be nourishing.

So let's look two examples of my not-so-secret indulgence, what I like to call the "Cap'n Crunch of literature," celebrity memoir.

I don't see many movies, but one of my all-time faves, The World According to Garp, features John Lithgow. Because Lithgow doesn't have the chiseled jawline of a typical leading man, I was sure "Drama" would be delicious celeb-read, full of the confessional over-sharing that is the genre's hallmark. Wrong! "Drama" is more autobiography than memoir, more dry recounting of achievements than raw story. Lithgow skips honest revelation in favor of cliche and generality. It's only near the end of the book that Lithgow gets personal, tells us that he had a MAJOR problem with fidelity, slept with many (all?) of his leading ladies and destroyed his marriage. Even then, his explanation for this adulterous behavior comes off sounding like an excuse, like he's letting himself off the hook. In other words, if you're looking for drama, you won't find much of it in "Drama."

In "Untied," Meredith Baxter, star of Family Ties (and the '70s show Bridget Loves Bernie, which you'll only remember if, like me, you've hit the half-century mark), comes clean. WAY clean. "Untied" is the anti-"Drama" -- and that's good. Baxter's memoir isn't artful. It's no "The Liars' Club." It's structure is simplistic and predictable. But Baxter packed her (probably ghost-written) memoir with so,that I didn't care. Three failed marriages, a famous abusive spouse, a descent into alcoholism -- what more could you ask for? How about Baxter's slow, late-in-life discovery of her homosexuality?

"Drama" is certainly the better written memoir. But if you've decided to read celeb-oir -- the literary equivalent of spitting out a liver vitamin -- you might as well make it count, might as well order a literary meal sugary enough to induce a diabetic coma. In this memoir battle, "Untied" is the sweet winner. Insulin not included.

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