The humorous personal essay is the casual fling of reading – all pleasure, no commitment, and you're out before things start to get heavy.
Sharp wit is as essential to the genre as bite is to a good cheddar. Essential, too, is gentle self-mockery. Sanctimony, on the other hand, is a major mood-spoiler.
Sloane Crosley meets these criteria head-on in her entertaining, often mordantly funny but occasionally self-indulgent, debut collection of 15 essays, I Was Told There'd Be Cake. Crosley, a 29-year-old publicist at Vintage Books who grew up in White Plains, N.Y, reports from the frontlines of determinedly single, working women toughing out friends' weddings and the trials of Manhattan real estate. She pretty much spares us the dating scene.
Hers is a world in which appearances matter – a lot. She opens with a bang, confessing a source of anxiety: "As most New Yorkers have done, I have given serious and generous thought to the state of my apartment should I get killed during the day." Beyond the unmade bed and unwashed dishes, it's the exposure of her collection of plastic toy ponies – "the most overtly sentimental part of my life" – that she most fears.
Naturally, rather than leave things to fate, Crosley outs herself. Many of the ponies, which she keeps in a kitchen drawer, are gifts from former boyfriends. This makes opening the drawer "a trip down Memory Lane, which, if you don't turn off at the right exit, merges straight into the Masochistic Nostalgia Highway."
One of Crosley's most engaging essays began as an e-mail to friends, later rewritten for The Village Voice. It's about locking herself out of both her old and new Upper West Side apartments on the day she moved from one to the other.
Ever conscious of appearance, Crosley writes, "Saturday, 8:10 a.m.: I get up to prepare for the movers, who charge by the hour so I'm trying to do as much as I can by myself. I am wearing shorts, a tank top, and flip-flops. Why is this relevant, you might ask. Why is an early-morning outfit description ever relevant? For the first time in my three years of living at my old apartment, I lock myself out."
All told, the day costs her $540 in locksmith fees, including the meager $20 discount she gets after telling the dispatcher "he should either give me a break or charge me double for being an idiot."
The art of the personal essay entails cultivating a voice and a persona. Crosley relishes her own contradictions as a cigarette-smoking vegetarian and a tough softie. She cherishes her distinguishing characteristics, including her unusual first name, "my cross and my copilot," which her mother got from a 1963 movie, "Diamond Head."
In keeping with the requirements of the genre, Crosley exposes herself as a begrudging bridesmaid and a wildly unreliable volunteer at the Museum of Natural History's butterfly exhibit. She leaves her wallet in taxis repeatedly, depending on the kindness of strangers to return it, yet fumes when a passerby chastises her for smoking. "When does neighborliness become meddling?" she asks pointedly.
She's merciless on suburbia, where "side effects include but are not limited to: inadvertent house arrest until the age of 18, the mall as ecosphere, jingling car keys as status symbol, an intimate knowledge of golf courses but a lack of global awareness."
"Christmas in July" is an extended meditation on summer camp and her family's "Lax Judaism," while "You on a Stick" dines out on the tortures of being corralled into a high school acquaintance's wedding party. Both have their moments but run on too long, demonstrating that brevity really is the soul of wit.
Self-deprecation, snappy one-liners, and pathos all come together more successfully in "The Ursula Cookie," about an undermining, brutal boss. In a misguided attempt to curry favor, Crosley brings the ogre a cookie she's baked in the shape of her head. Even more ludicrously inappropriate is the moment she picks to give notice – Sept. 11, 2001.
Clearly, Crosley is nosing into David Sedaris territory, milking her personal foibles and family not just for laughs but to make trenchant points about the world she inhabits. With her sparkling, fresh voice, Crosley is a talent worth watching – if she doesn't do herself in with those cigarettes first.