Litanies along the lines of ‘Ya know what bugs me?’
I am easily annoyed by trivial things. People who say “ATM machine.” People who send letters to Walter Scott, Parade magazine’s celebrity gossip maven, in hopes of gleaning insight into the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Incessant sniffling. Carrot Top. The dearth of intellectual curiosity in the White House over the last eight years, though that was more of an existential suffering than a mere annoyance. All of which should make me the perfect audience for two new books: Denis Leary’s new “Feel Good Guide” and “Is It Just Me” by Steve Lowe and Alan McArthur with Brendan Hay. Both books attempt to catalog the ills of living in modern society. Both, sadly, fall short.
The validation of personal anger is what keeps both the psychiatric field and comedy clubs afloat. In both cases, however, that empathetic connection is frequently an issue of being caught in a receptive moment. The flip side is that if you’re not completely in tune with the person venting his anger and discomfort, it can just come off as affectation.
In Leary’s case, it’s hard to tell if he actually cares about (or believes in) the topics of his rants. Throughout the duration of his career in stand-up and, most recently, his work in serious drama, including his acclaimed series “Rescue Me,” Leary hasn’t shied away from taking big chances, the result typically being success. His righteous anger is rooted in a working-class aesthetic that mocks the perception that fame equals intellect. Onstage, it works because you see the act, you see veins rise in Leary’s neck and, for a few moments, maybe you imagine yourself having the acuity (or courage) to say the very things he does. In print, it can feel strained.
When Leary laments the sudden rise of children with “special needs” (in his chapter “Autism Shmautism”), he first defines what he considers autism to be: “I know a couple of autistic children and let me tell you something they both have in common -- they are extremely bright and attentive and -- much like Rain Man -- have individual talents and abilities that would lay your empty little tyke’s video game-addled soul to waste. . . . Autism is up and who knows why -- parents who wasted time, their brain cells and a lot of healthy DNA on way too many recreational drugs is this doctor’s guess -- but I refuse to sit here and believe that half the idiotic offspring I come across even amongst my own friends and family are a part of that problem.”
Donning the mask
Leary, who holds an honorary doctorate from Emerson College in Boston, is probably right on that assumption. But as he goes on to explain who really does and who really doesn’t have autism and Asperger’s, you feel him going strictly for shock value. Maybe that’s OK, since it’s not as if the Denis Leary presented on the page, or the stage, is likely much like the person in the skin -- he plays a role and that role is of instigator and confabulator.
This is, after all, the same man who a few chapters later talks about the importance of being raised in a stable nuclear family where “mom and dad made us go to Catholic school where we learned to develop a sense of right and wrong” and where he was “grateful that my dad told us the truth and my mom always gave us a hug and a kiss . . . and we all lived under the same roof and always felt like we could turn to them for help.” He even admits a huge sum of admiration for Oprah Winfrey ("[B]ecoming president would be a step down for her”), which suggests, again, that you have to indulge him some middle ground. The book is funny in places (notably in the first chapter, “Why Everyone Hates Us,” which includes as reasons, rightly, Angelina Jolie and MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16") and Leary’s frenetic style suggests a brain bursting with thought, but his maddeningly repetitive notes -- men are big, dumb hominids; women want love, tenderness and children -- marginalize the more trenchant social commentary.
Relevance is lacking
But not as marginal as “Is It Just Me,” an alphabetical listing of all the things in the world that make this existence more fecal than festive. Adapted from a British version with the help of “The Daily Show” alum Brendan Hay, “Is It Just Me” maintains a somewhat Eurocentric viewpoint in the things it chooses to pillory (“Policemen Cutting Up Dead People on the Telly” and lots of “bloody” and “bleeding” as expletives, for instance), and where Leary aims low, Hay et al. aim straight for the upper-middle class with irony and cheekiness.
Like this, on “Journalists Who Never Got Over ‘Sex and the City’ ”: “If you do ever find your own personal ‘Big,’ do you then think you might possibly be able to shut up?” Or this, on Oscar parties: “So many parties, so little talent. There’s Barry Diller’s pre-Oscar luncheon, CAA agent Bryan Lourd’s day-before shindig, the Weinstein Company’s Saturday Bash. . . . They all sound amazing, except for the fact that you are not allowed to get pissed (‘You just want to have a celebratory glow,’ says one insider), there’s never enough room (‘There’s never enough room,’ says another insider), and if you’re not either a mogul or someone involved in a nominated film, no one will be interested in talking to you.” Other not-terribly-funny bones of contention: “Homophobic Christians,” “Kate Moss,” “Tom Cruise,” “TV Bullies” and “Messianic World Leaders.” Even water is all washed up according to “Is It Just Me.”
The writing is lively enough to get you to crack a smile periodically -- the segment on “Restaurants With Unfeasibly Small Toilets” actually elicited an outright laugh -- but this collection of anecdotal annoyances is immediately forgettable; the kind of book one might keep in an unfeasibly small loo.
Tod Goldberg’s books include “Living Dead Girl,” “Fake Liar Cheat” and “Simplify.”