Ever so slightly nuts

Monday Book Review

May 10, 1993|By Neil A. Grauer

1-800-AM-I-NUTS? By Margo Kaufman. Random House. 312 pages. $20. MARGO Kaufman, a native Baltimorean and freelance columnist based in "Lunatic Central" -- Venice Beach, Calif. -- demonstrates here that she is droll, level-headed and, on occasion, a talented kvetch.

Ms. Kaufman, who began her writing career as a columnist for Baltimore's City Paper, says she prefers the Los Angeles area because she likes weird people and places, and out there "it's easy to tell who the strange people are." Has she never seen a John Waters movie?

Nevertheless, Baltimore, she writes, "always made me nervous because even the ax murderers wear suits." Evidently she prefers murderers who roam the freeways taking pot-shots at fellow commuters.

Ms. Kaufman now is a contributor to the Sunday magazines of both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, as well as L.A. Weekly, Working Woman, Cosmopolitan, the Village Voice, USA Today and (no kidding) Pug Talk. Her first anthology of articles, "1-800 AM-I-NUTS?", comprises 78 pieces assembled under such categories as "On Venice Beach" (about the wacky, "seedy but artsy" Southern California community where she lives, where 911 is answered by the voice mail message "Press one if you are being mugged"); "Love in the Time of Telephone Tag" (the things that keep couples together or drive them apart in the '90s); and "More Than I Ever Wanted to Know" (social trends, oddball pastimes and personal quirks).

Ms. Kaufman says that today she finds the "line between ordinary and bizarre is very hazy," hence her wish, incorporated in the book's title, for "a hot line that I could call when I was confronted by a bizarre situation," such as a TV ad for a Flowbe, "a revolutionary new precision hair-cutting system that attaches to a vacuum cleaner . . ."

If you don't recognize an experience or trait of your own or someone you love (or despise) in these pieces, you are a hermit. Ms. Kaufman's observations tend to provoke knowing grins rather than guffaws. Making home improvements, she writes, "is an addiction that can be cured only by bankruptcy." Fashion, she says, "is a universal female bonding experience" (the equivalent of sports for the other sex). Costly, stylish items seem to get lost easily, Ms. Kaufman observes, while inexpensive, tacky ones stick around even if you wish to be rid of them: "You can throw a pair of cheap sunglasses out of the car window in Tijuana and they'll walk home to L.A. -- like Lassie . . . But expensive sunglasses disappear before the check clears."

Ms. Kaufman also can be poignant, as when she writes about putting to sleep her 14-year-old pet pug "Stella," whom she claims she never liked.

An anthology such as this highlights a writer's strengths, but it also reveals weaknesses that might not be so evident if the pieces were read individually over a long period of time. Stock formulas become glaringly apparent; annoying habits emerge.

Ms. Kaufman routinely deals with a subject by citing a suspiciously inexhaustible circle of compliant, witty "friends" and experts" who invariably supply just the right quote to make her point or deliver a punch line. We hear repeatedly from "my friend Sabina" (who is quoted so often she ought to request part of Ms. Kaufman's royalties). We're also introduced to "my friend Leslie," "my friend Claire," "my friend Marcella," "my friend Rob," Ms. Kaufman's husband Duke, even her ex-husband. All offer their comments until the author encounters one friend "too embarrassed to let me use her name."

Ms. Kaufman also appears to have the entire sociology department at the University of Southern California on retainer -- with quotes provided by various professors there. Not surprisingly, "experts" of all sorts can be found in Southern California, and Ms. Kaufman rounds them up, too: a "family therapist" from Claremont in one piece, and in another (so help me) "an animal behaviorist in West Los Angeles." She also is frank about her occasional consultations with assorted psychics, including one "cut-rate Cassandra" who readily accepts MasterCard.

The transparency of this technique eventually becomes grating. It also is unnecessary. Ms. Kaufman has enough insights of her own -- such as her observation that food "has become everyone's three-dimensional Rorschach test, an edible tool for self-definition and social judgment."

Ms. Kaufman also once offered an ironically prescient analysis of what she calls "name bigotry," our tendency to dislike someone before meeting them simply because we don't like his or her name. In an undated piece clearly written more than a year ago (although all the articles are undated), she quotes the observation of "my friend Wendy," who said: "I'm so sick of these yuppie names I can hardly get them out of my mouth. Names like Zoe, Chelsea. . ." Ms. Kaufman herself notes that "other chauvinists are suspicious of men with women's names and vice versa."

Could she unconsciously have been thinking of "Hillary"? How unfortunate!

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist.

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