Review by George Yatchisin
Gary Gulman is the kind of comedian you figured had a book in him, given his love of words and language that helped him craft a classic routine out of the creation of the states’ two letter abbreviations. (If you don’t know this bit, Google it up now before reading this review; one delicious moment, “Ne’er-do-wells. How often do well? They ne’er do well.”) But there’s more—he’s also willing to open up in ways many people can’t. Check out his powerful, and powerfully funny HBO show The Great Depresh, where he intercut stand-up with footage of his fight with mental illness.
But wait there’s more—based on the painstakingly detailed tales of his K-12 education that make up Misfit—he’s a real-life Funes the Memorious. If that allusion is too-highfalutin, we can turn to one perhaps equally obscure if more middlebrow, the Disney live action classic The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, one of Gulman’s favorite flicks as a kid. Gulman even provides the phone numbers for his precious handful of friends when he introduces them in the book.
His encyclopedic recall allows for finely etched moments to come to vivid, laugh-out-loud life again and again. Take his kindergarten reminiscence about Massachusetts’s winter and the need for heavy coats and the young fumble of zipper technology. “Aligning the two-piece hardware in my throwing hand with the elongated zipper tine in my baseball glove hand, then pulling up on that slider—VWOOOT! It was electrifying. It felt great to no longer be one of those kids who had to wait in line to have their coats zipped up for them by Carol [his teacher]. I could now scoff at those kids. Only shoe tying stood between me and complete self-sufficiency.”
Beyond the withering power of peer scoffing, a force that will get plenty of play through this memoir, the elder Gulman obviously knows how precarious self-sufficiency can be. For Misfit not only takes us through his education, but it’s also framed by his moving back in with his mother at age 46 as his home base to battle his depression demons. Somehow Gulman manages the precarious balancing trick of charting his deepest depths and helping us truly understand them without ever losing us to despair too. (It doesn’t hurt we know he’s written the book, and pulled it off with care and craft.)
It’s possible to consider the book a double bildungsroman: by sifting through his childhood ‘s many ignominies and occasional thrills, he gets to recreate himself at mid-age. It only took Gulman until second grade to decide that humorlessness was the world’s biggest sin—his teacher makes the sad joke, “You mean you’re full of baloney?” when he can’t finish his sandwich one day. “I faked a laugh,” he writes. “Out of compassion. But I was ashamed of myself for betraying my comedic ethos. Full of baloney. Oh, Eve, you dreary crone.” And later he admits, “Friends laugh at the same stuff. Why else would they be friends? Shared values? Please.”
Not surprisingly for someone whose self-esteem could crumble after a single askance look from anyone, school is never particularly easy for Gulman. He turns out to have a knack for obsessive work, though, when it’s something that catches his fancy, from fastidiously organizing baseball cards to playing basketball, he never minded putting in the time. It doesn’t hurt many of these tasks he can do by himself, so he drills his dribbling skills, say, or, when old enough, his masturbatory skills. About onanism he seriously jokes, “If I had attacked the guitar with such vigor, I’d be Muddy Waters.”
The book itself can be similarly solipsistic. True, teenage drama tends to be all-encompassing and all-consuming, but the greater world rarely impinges in Misfit. Not much of the political world intrudes, from Carter’s malaise to Reagan’s getting shot, let alone more kid-interesting moments like the Bicentennial, or a more Boston focused moment like the ball between Bill Buckner’s legs in the 1986 World Series.
Gulman does burn with a sense of class justice, however, with his broken home lower middle class background fore-fronted. In junior high he admits Air Jordans at $65 was out of reach for his family, but also excoriates those who weren’t fit to wear the hallowed sneaker, “I was outraged whenever I saw a boy who dabbled in basketball wearing Air Jordans….You don’t get to wear the same shoes as Michael Jordan just because your father is a dentist.”
The growing up Gulman also struggles with how to defend himself against a world of anti-Semitism. His own relationship to G-d, as he types it, is fraught, fearful, unconventional, and involves much bargaining (if only G-d would provide ____ when Gulman gave up _____). Gulman does provide a wonderful takedown on the notion of stereotyping, in particular, “That all Jews are wealthy, for several reasons, including the indignity of being a member of a minority group known for possessing a desirable trait who doesn’t possess it. Imagine the shame in being, say, a Belgian, who try as they might, cannot make a filling waffle. Everyone comes home from their brunch let down and hungry.”
No reader will leave Misfit let down. To overcome a period in his life when he admits if anyone asked how he was doing he should have honestly said, “Better, I feel safe around shoelaces again and you should see all the kitchen knives they leave out! I’m sleeping in a twin bed at my mommy’s house, but things are lookin’ up,” is a stunning accomplishment. But as he also admits about his first-grade self, “Though I couldn’t have put it in words, I was always drawn to underdogs, like the library, PBS, and sherbet.” Gulman is the underdog that could.