The Church of Anne Lamott

In baring her all-too-human soul, the author of 'Traveling Mercies' has become a minor deity to her fans.

February 15, 1999|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Anne Lamott understands.

Mayer Baker kneels before her, the first supplicant in a line of more than 100, a line that stretches from literature, through genre fiction and all the way to biography in the Pikesville Bibelot bookstore. Baker has with her seven copies of various Lamott titles, including four of the latest one, "Traveling Mercies," a book of essays billed as "some thoughts on faith." It's also about hair and dogs and parents and how screaming at one's child is akin to "bitch-slapping E.T.," a characteristic Lamott-ism. But, primarily, it's about capital-C Christianity. No getting around it.

Not that anyone here wants to get around it. This is the book tour as tent revival.

"You have phrases that are like pearls on a necklace," one woman gushes during the reading, and another shakes her head and says something that sounds like "Yes ma'am." But it just might have been "Amen."

The kneeling Baker is, in her words, "trying to be a writer." There is no doubt that the writer she wants to be is Anne Lamott, or someone like her. Someone who's funny and heartbreaking, who tells you the most horrible things she's ever done, then makes herself sound like an OK person, because she, at least, has confessed.

"My twin sister and I feel she's our honorary triplet," says Baker, who identifies herself as a mother, volunteer and book club member. "We love everything she says and the way she says it."

Baker moves on, and now it's Joni Vaughan's turn. Vaughan, a graphic artist, has driven all the way from Richmond. She, too, wants to be a writer. She scoured the Internet for a hardcover copy of Lamott's very first novel, "Hard Laughter," published almost 20 years ago. "She touches you on a gut level," Vaughan says.

And so it goes, down the line, to the woman who announces she feels about her chest the way Lamott feels about her hips, to the old boyfriend who gives Lamott a McGovern pin for her pink sweater, to the Goucher classmates and professor who knew her when, to the people who think they know her from reading her books, and maybe they do.

Lamott takes her time, tries to find a balance between the shark-like demands of the signing line and the raw neediness of the individuals in it. So many seem sure they could be her best friend, if only there were time.

Local writer Zippy Larsen holds up a copy of Lamott's book on writing, "Bird by Bird," and announces that it made possible her self-published book, "How to Find a Fella in the Want Ads." Lamott asks for a copy and promises she will read it. "Will you tell me what you think?" Larsen asks. Not necessarily, Lamott says gently.

Lamott knows the other side of the signing table. When she was in her 20s, already a published novelist, she wrote a fan letter about "Happy All the Time" to its author, Laurie Colwin.

It was a funny letter, a good letter, Lamott is sure of that. Finally, a reply arrived, a postcard, handwritten and addressed, but not terribly intimate. "I remember it really hurt my feelings, I felt awful about it, because I loved her so much. I felt, `Oh no, we're not going to be close, we're not going to be best friends.' "

She figures she answers about 75 percent of her mail. But, inevitably, she meets people who want to know if she received their letters from a year ago, two years ago, five years ago. Each person says this as if it's the only letter ever written, as if she could not have forgotten this particular letter. "Maybe it never got to you," one woman said helpfully, earlier on this tour.

Maybe, Lamott agreed.

Traveling mercies

Lamott, two months shy of her 45th birthday, is a recovering alcoholic, a single mother and a former bulimic. But the most difficult thing she ever copped to was believing in Jesus Christ.

"Jesus was the hard part," she says over a brownie pick-me-up before her talk at Bibelot last week. "I didn't tell anyone at first."

She is pretty, much prettier than her author photos or self-deprecating prose would have you believe. She is not fat, despite recent claims in Salon, the online magazine. One has to look closely to see the delicate, enameled cross hanging on a chain from her neck.

She grew up in an intellectual Marin County, Calif., family where belief in any deity "meant that you were stupid," she says in "Traveling Mercies." "Ignorant people believed, uncouth people, and we were heavily couth."

Yet Lamott believed. Not in God, or Jesus, but in someone. Someone who listened. The Lamott household was big on secrets -- "The one rule was not to tell anything about the family to the outside world," she says. She simply added this secret to the others.

At Goucher College in the early 1970s -- her mother attended the school, as did her aunt -- Lamott had a moment of revelation while studying Kierkegaard with a beloved professor, Eva Gossman. In reading the philosopher's retelling of the story of Abraham and Isaac, Lamott experienced what she describes as a lurch of faith. She decided to become Jewish.

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