Friends Like These

Not content with Facebook, a writer travels the globe to catch up with 12 childhood pals.

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It is easy to “friend” someone on Facebook, quickly catch up on their lives and, essentially, move on. It is quite another thing to find yourself, two decades later, standing on that person’s doorstep and knocking on the door. Yet that is precisely where author Danny Wallace puts himself as he tracks down 12 of his childhood friends.

Nearing 30, Wallace is firmly planted in that awkward stage between carefree youth and the responsibility of adulthood. He spends his days on his Xbox playing Call of Duty, – even though he is also a married man and a homeowner.

When he attends a party celebrating his friend Neil’s 30th birthday, Wallace isn’t expecting more than a few laughs. Instead, he is inspired and moved by the warm collection of longtime friends gathered around Neil. These were friends “who knew him not just for what he was, but for how he became what he was. It was something I wasn’t sure I had.”

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Armed with his childhood address book and fresh off the warm and fuzzy feeling from Neil’s party, Wallace goes online and begins to search for 12 very important childhood pals, a quest he hopes to accomplish by his 30th birthday. And so was born Friends Like These, Wallace’s account of his global jaunt in search of his onetime mates.

Facebook and other social-networking sites are hugely popular for a reason. It is human nature to wonder about the people who have passed in and out of our lives. We wonder if they are married. What they do for a living. If they’re happy.

Secretly, of course, we wonder if they’re bald, if they drive minivans or wear unflattering clothes – and if they ever wonder about us.

Today, with the distance between two people drastically shortened, it is possible to pull together all our nine lives into one pixilated page, categorizing and connecting our “friends.” But Wallace doesn’t want to hide behind his profile and exchange small talk. He wants to make a connection.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he has enjoyed extraordinary success and has an impressive list of accomplishments to share with his re-found mates. He has published three previous books, written and produced radio and television programs, seen his book “Yes Man” made into a movie starring Jim Carrey, and hosted a handful of television programs on the BBC and SkyOne. Not too shabby.

Over the next few months, Wallace travels to Australia, California, Germany, Scotland, and Japan. He reconnects with a hip-hop star in Berlin, a writer in Los Angeles, and a member of the Fijian royalty. He is ecstatic to share memories with each of their 1980s childhoods, from McDonald’s to Michael Jackson. While most of his old friends are receptive to seeing him, he does run into stumbling blocks – and at one point is even heartbroken by the process.

Despite the heft of 416 pages, this romp through Wallace’s childhood reads like a comfortable conversation with an old friend. Wallace deserves praise for having written so funny and engaging a book. But what should earn him even more respect is that he wasn’t content to Google his friends. He really wanted to know them again.

And through those conversations and connections, he began to know himself better, too: “[T]he friendships you make are a marker of life,” he writes. “Friends define us, and we walk or trip or stumble through life just as they do.”

Kim Schmidt is a freelance writer in Champaign, Ill., with 56 friends. Or so she’s told.

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