Runaway's account runs out of steam

Review Memoir


Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir

Janice Erlbaum

Villard / 272 pages / $21.95

Shanita Who Could Squirt Breast Milk is the sort of character who restores one's faith in memoir, for the simple reason that an 18-year-old homeless girl who fires up her mammary glands when angry is a personality too strange to be fabricated.

Yet even stronger testimony to the truthfulness of Janice Erlbaum's debut book, Girlbomb, is the abundance of blander characters, who are so ordinary that it is hard to imagine Erlbaum bothering to invent them: the caustic stepfather. The over-medicated mom. The turncoat best friends. The doting boyfriend. And, alas, adolescent Janice herself.

Sure, her mid-1980s youth is tumultuous: A 15-year-old runaway, she spends several eventful months as the only white girl in a New York City homeless shelter, then dodges Shanita at the group home before moving back with her heavily sedated mother. She gets a boyfriend, goes on drugs, then off again. All told, it's an interesting life story - more interesting than mine, certainly - but not more compelling than those of a lot of people.

This is not a criticism, necessarily. It's to Erlbaum's credit that she, unlike that faker James Frey, wrestles with the anatomy of real life rather than inventing a traditional story arc, with a singular breathless climax, a neat epiphany and a symbol-infused denouement. Readers who demand reality from their memoirists should be prepared to deal with a little narrative disarray.

But it's also up to the author to compensate with more reflection on just what this disjointed sequence means. Erlbaum's tale is almost entirely event-based; she assumes that the rapid-fire happenings of her life, the blur of boyfriends and drug binges, are enough to propel the story, and they aren't - at least, not after she leaves behind the fascinating underworld of homeless shelters about midway through the book.

This is a shame, because Erlbaum, a columnist for Bust magazine, is a talented stylist who writes as she lives: with sharp eyes and elbows. But she's an exhibitionist who is oddly cautious about introspection, and thus we're never totally sure why she does the crazy things she's doing. Where does she get the guts to run away, having grown up with only her weak-willed mother as a model? Why does she let mean Alice abuse her? How can she ignore the homeless waif turning tricks in Grand Central? What makes her stay in school? I think Erlbaum feels this lack of analysis, which is why the book closes with a college admissions essay, one of the lamest ways of spelling out meaning known to man.

There are authors who do more with much less life experience - take Curtis Sittenfeld, whose excellent first novel, Prep, borrows from her own ordinary, late-1990s life at a New England boarding school, and finds a way to use quotidian details to map the teenage soul. But Erlbaum ignores the natural chemistry of her own adolescence in favor of drug-induced meditations, choosing the melodramatic over the in-depth. It's significant that some of the book's most lyrical passages describe out-of-body tripping:

"The Ecstasy must have been kicking in, though it was hard to distinguish from the everyday ecstatic joy I was feeling. There was a swirly sheen over everything, like an oily film on my eyeballs; the sensation of disks moving under my feet, gears turning in my head. I love everything, I thought, breathing like an ox through my nose."

Now, popping some pills or rolling a joint is a logical way to sidestep the reality of your life, but writing a memoir is not. Erlbaum's reluctance to plumb her motives and render herself a more rounded character leaves us not with the impression of a 15-year-old girl without a home, but of a grown woman not totally at home with herself.

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