Let’s say you and your wittiest friend, the one who lives in New York, take a road trip together. Driving across Nebraska, she regales you with accounts of strange, quirky or terrible things that have happened to her lately. Your friend is so funny that, even when she’s telling about bad experiences, you laugh.
That’s approximately what it’s like to read Sloane Crosley’s “Look Alive Out There.” As in her two previous essay collections, beginning with 2008’s bestselling “I Was Told There’d Be Cake,” Crosley stuffs tales from her life with sharp observations, offbeat analogies, pop-culture wisecracks and a welcome tone of affable self-deprecation. The jokes are mostly on her.
Well, not quite jokes. Her stories aren’t setups to punch lines, as if crafted by a standup comic. Because she writes essays and is funny, she gets compared to David Sedaris. But unlike Sedaris’, her anecdotes do not serve as loose frameworks for rollicking comedy. They’re more like, “So this really weird thing happened. … ”
Many are unlikely sources of amusement. Being tormented at 3 a.m. by a neighbor who cranks his music to 11. Gamely attempting a challenging hike in Ecuador with inadequate clothing, dwindling water, insufficient acclimation and altitude sickness. Getting scammed by a guy who snaps up her website’s domain name and demands thousands to give it back. Suffering months of incapacitating dizziness that is diagnosed as an incurable lifelong disease (spoiler alert: It eventually goes away).
But even the direst circumstances are lightened with droll remarks. “The average person will spend more time over the course of his or her lifetime wondering why marshmallow is spelled like that than they will wondering how writers write.” “She escorted me to a silver trailer and knocked on the door, whereupon two stylists answered and yanked me inside as if I were a spy about to blow my cover.” “By the time you’re an adult, the question ‘want to go skiing next weekend?’ actually sounds like ‘want to go bungee jumping with this old dental floss that I found?’ ”
She shows little inclination to delve for deeper meanings. Whereas Sedaris’ humor often leads to some serious irony or epiphany, Crosley’s big themes are right there in their topics: death, illness, a ticking biological clock. In perhaps the most poignant essay, she meets a distant relative, a retired porn star who joined the industry looking for a girlfriend. He never found one.
But so what if you don’t read Crosley’s essays for universal human truths? Read them because, when life is like a long drive on I-80 west of Omaha, you want a clever, funny friend along for the ride.
Katy Read is a Star Tribune reporter.
Look Alive Out There
By: Sloane Crosley.
Publisher: MCD/ Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 240 pages, $26.
Event: In conversation with Marlon James, 7 p.m., April 12, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.