I usually dislike books labeled as “memoir” (though I occasionally read them), because I’ve always known they can’t be trusted.
In fact, when the whole Million-Little-Pieces debacle unfolded a few years ago, I was bemused by the “Shocked! Shocked!” reaction it provoked. Seriously, now: Were daytime-television bookclubbers really surprised to discover that “memoir” is French for “big fat self-serving lie”?
Besides, even if a memoirist endeavors to be as truthful as memory allows, he or she will still get something wrong. I myself, the earthly avatar of Honesty and Cub-Scoutiness, have discovered that I often just flat misremember things. Last year, for example, I wrote an essay for Eat Our Brains in which I described a childhood game that I said had no name, but that I would refer to as “Dizzy Idiots.” Then, a few months ago, my Baby Brother (who could now crush me ‘twixt his thumb and forefinger like an overripe grape) reminded me that the game I had described did have a name. It was called “Tornado.”
[Well, Baby Brother would have a better memory of that game than I would. He was the one who wound up in the Emergency Room because of it.]
So I tend to side with Sir Philip Sidney’s position in his Defence of Poesy, which I read as (in part) arguing that fiction has a better shot at avoiding lies than nonfiction, because it makes no pretense of being “true.” In other words, fiction, unlike memoir, is willing to stand right up and say “None of this happened. It’s all made-up. It’s a story.” This means a novel has a better shot at exposing real truths about human behavior than a memoir does . . . because the novelist, unlike the memoirist, is free of the self-serving urge to modify or leave out that which is seriously raw and/or damning (as opposed to that which is merely salacious).
And now, having said all that –
I am going to recommend a memoir.
[Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am vast; I contain Walt Whitman.]
Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, by Steve Martin, is a short, tightly-written book chronicling Mr. Martin’s rise from Disneyland-guidebook salesboy to the most successful stand-up comedian of all time. And that’s where it stops, in the early ‘80s, just as Mr. Martin’s stand-up career ends and his film acting career begins. It barely mentions his other post-standup careers as screenwriter, playwright, New Yorker humorist, and novelist.
But Born Standing Up doesn’t need to discuss Steve Martin the author, because he’s well represented by the book itself. Many would-be and already-are writers could learn a thing or two from studying Mr. Martin’s prose. It’s not one-hundred-percent perfect (what is?), but it’s consistently sharp and evocative – and every paragraph matters to the story being told. There’s no junk or padding, which may be why Born Standing Up is able to cover almost four decades in only 207 pages.
If Mr. Martin doesn’t have a well-worn copy of The Elements of Style somewhere in his office, then the ghosts of Strunk and White must have whispered to him in his dreams.
Plus, Born Standing Up is funny. No, it’s not the wild-and-crazy funny of Mr. Martin’s old standup act. But it’s witty-funny, poignant-funny, and grown-up funny.
Toward the end of one chapter, for example, Mr. Martin tells the story of how the director John Frankenheimer once stole his girlfriend – and how, twenty years later, Frankenheimer also tried to seduce his wife. The final sentence of the chapter reads: “Incidentally, Frankenheimer died a few years ago, but it was not I who killed him.”
At another point, after describing “interludes of monogamy” with various girlfriends, Mr. Martin anticipates a question and answers it thusly: “Were they beautiful? We were all beautiful. We were in our twenties.”
And as a final example, here’s Mr. Martin on the zeitgeist of the 1960s: “I didn’t yet know its name but found out later it was called Flower Power, and I was excited to learn that we were now living in the Age of Aquarius, an age when, at least astrologically, the world would be taken over by macramé.”
So was it just the strong, funny writing that enabled Born Standing Up to win me over when most memoirs leave me feeling grifted?
Well, that probably would have been enough. Strong, funny writing will make me forgive a lot.
But Born Standing Up has more going for it.
For one thing, I never had the sense that Mr. Martin was trying to convince me that everything he was saying was “true” or that this was the “whole story” about anything. So my bullshit detector never went off. My bullshit detector goes off a lot these days, WHEEPWHEEPWHEEP, resulting in a near-constant headache – so, boy, did I appreciate the fact that Born Standing Up gave me a break.
For another thing, Mr. Martin treats both himself and all other persons whose names appear in the book with respect. This isn’t to suggest that everyone in Born Standing Up comes off as a saint. Far from it. But there’s no salacity for salacity’s sake . . . and even the badly-behaved are described humanely and without insult.
Yet the book still manages to be fascinating and vivid despite its dearth of ugliness and dirt. (Imagine that!)
Finally, and (for me) most importantly:
About halfway through Born Standing Up, I realized that Mr. Martin was not writing a conventional “memoir.”
Rather, he was telling the story of how he (Steve Martin, a pretty average kid from first Waco and then Orange County) spent over thirty years creating an iconic and legendary fictional character (Steve Martin, the wild-and-crazy white-suited lunatic who was definitely not from Waco or Orange County).
In other words, Born Standing Up is the sharp, funny story of a born storyteller . . . learning how to tell his first really great story.
“True” or not –
Man, how could I not love that?