on Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life, short essays by Michael Greenberg (Other Press)

In “Sound Booth” Michael Greenberg writes about recording the audio version of his 2008 memoir Hurry Down Sunshine. Like the other forty-four pieces in Beg Borrow Steal, this essay was published in the Times Literary Supplement, meeting the editor’s length requirement of 1100-1200 words. “Sound Booth” finds Greenberg in the booth with a stubborn cough, swigging codeine syrup, his rumbling stomach picked up by the mike. Then his attention shifts to David Rapkin, the producer: “I recognized in him the particular sophistication of Manhattanites who came of age in the 1940s and early 1950s: a clashing sense of the arcane, the absurd, the anarchic, and an inherited immigrant’s severity.” At the close of the session, Rapkin remarks to Greenberg, “All I wanted was for you to get out of the way so the story could tell itself.”

GreenbergCov.jpgBut these short essays, every one a gem, succeed because Greenberg is always in the way, managing his distinct presence with a scriptwriter’s feel for a rising moment and a telling detail. Taken together, these stories about his family, friends and acquaintances in New York, the history and habits of the city, and his own odd adventures form the “writer’s life” of the book’s subtitle. But what sort of writer is Greenberg, now in his 50s? In his fine piece on Ted Solotaroff, he mentions writing but not publishing a novel in the 1980s. “Hack” speaks about his screenwriting career and the lowly status of the writer in Hollywood (“My credit sacrifices have allowed me to maintain the facile superiority of one who has little at stake”). The next essay, “My Brilliant Career,” reflects on the many “dead-end jobs” he worked in the 1970s. The self-critique is acerbic:

GreenbergBW.jpg“My goal was to avoid the psychological rut of ‘working for the man.’ My status was low, but loyalty to employers wasn’t required, allowing the illusion of independence that seemed of paramount importance. To my friends I explained that I was serving a literary apprenticeship, but a more powerful force was in operation: I couldn’t bear the prospect of pinning myself to a ‘career.’ The joke was that I was willing to work harder than the next person to ensure that I didn’t have one. To really achieve distinction, I believed, one’s failure must be total … I remember the day in the early 1980s, when, fed up with the drudgery to which I had sentenced myself, and aware that with two children at home it was too late to change course, I had followed a well-dressed man out of the subway, into a building, up the elevator, and all the way to the door of his office. A regular paycheck had become my version of paradise.”

GreenbergColor.jpgThat’s about 175 words or one-fifth of this particular essay. Greenberg arranges his employment anecdotes around this key thought, dealing in fragments yet giving the reader an impression of a completely considered idea. In “Negros Burial Ground,” he begins with the 1991 discovery in Manhattan of “the only pre-Revolutionary African cemetery known to exist in the United States.” He and his friend Roy go to watch the excavation. Then, he segues to the tension that summer between orthodox Jews and blacks in Brooklyn. Roy says, “All during my growing-up years, you were the landlord, the grocer, demanding money, the only whitey we ever dealt with near home. The pathetic white sharecropper with his stupid slave.” This reminds Greenberg of Malamud’s novel The Tenant. Next, there’s a paragraph about Roy, who had given him a copy of Richard Wright’s story “The Man Who Killed a Shadow” which is quoted. Roy develops prostate cancer. Now in the present, Greenberg visits an exhibit of artifacts dug up in 1991. And finally, the devastating final paragraph:

“In December 1993, shortly before he died, Roy and I were in a bar when a news flash on the television reported that a black man had opened fire on a New York commuter train during rush hour, killing five whites and wounding twenty others. ‘If you knew how many black people walk around fantasizing about doing just what that guy did, you’d never leave your apartment.’ Roy said. He thoroughly approved when, in court, acting as his own lawyer, the murderer pleaded innocent on the grounds that racism had driven him insane.”

But Greenberg doesn’t quite allow the reader to believe he concurs with Roy. This brilliant and disturbing little essay isn’t about concurrence. It’s about experience, personal and historical. “The Interpreter,” a memoir of his days as an interpreter for Spanish-speaking defendants at a Manhattan criminal court, is filled with dispassion for the guilty and intensity of engaged observation at the same time. The complexity of some of these pieces is stunning.

GreenbergBW2.jpgIn “The Sanity of Darkness,” Greenberg discusses the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld who said about his Holocaust prose, “I’ve written more than twenty books about those years, but sometimes it seems as though I haven’t yet begun to describe them.” After devoting three paragraphs to reactions to a recent fraudulent Holocaust memoir, Greenberg asks, “But do violent death and grief really give rise to lyricism and heart-tingle?” He questions why “readers and publishers seem to embrace victimhood as a peculiar privilege, a means to achieve emotional transcendence.” Since “neurologists have found that children don’t have the capacity to create memory as adults do,” Greenberg leaves us with a shadowy, lingering feeling about Appelfeld’s idea. In another slant way, the entire essay is a comment on Greenberg’s own memoiristic urge.

About his daughter’s mental illness depicted in Hurry Down Sunshine, he writes in “The Final Word,” “To harm her was the furthest thing from my mind, but in a way the very act of writing was a betrayal: I was exposing her psychosis, chronicling in detail what could have been painlessly left unsaid.” There’s a whiff of the transgressive throughout Beg Borrow Steal as if Greenberg is getting away with something after all. His TLS editor had told him that each essay “had to spill a drop of blood.” Each of these essays has the allure of a small scar.

[Published September 8, 2009, 240 pages, $19.95 hardcover]

Greenberg's essays

I bought a copy yesterday after reading your review. These brief essays are the closest thing to literary potato chips. I couldn't stop reading, one after another. Greenberg doesn't try to be too affable or come across as oh so perceptive like so many memoir writers. It's almost as if he's sparring with his material, and though you know he'll slip out of the essay in one piece, he sometimes gives you the sense that he's overmatched but wise in an earned way. Thanks for telling me about this book.

Beg, Borrow, Steal

Wow. I have to read this man.