Sloane Crosley: How Did You Get This Number
Sloane Crosley’s debut essay collection, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, earned her the sort of accolades that pave the way for disappointment and backlash at the very murmur of a second book. There were blurbs from Jonathan Lethem and A.M. Homes, raves in every magazine that covered the book, and comparisons to Dorothy Parker, Nora Ephron, Fran Lebowitz, and King Midas. It was a lot to live up to on the second go-around. Crosley, however, is that rare kind of young writer for whom no one wishes failure, and her second offering is an affirmative giggle in the face of anyone who doubted the author’s talent for humorous non-fiction.
The nine essays collected in How Did You Get This Number depart from the New York-centric universe of Crosley’s first book. Here we find her roaming around Alaska, Paris, and Lisbon — the last of which finds Crosley in a hotel room with “a broken radiator and a lone bath towel that could tear the skin off a baby.” She’s a loopy and agreeable explorer, getting lost, being threatened, meeting clowns and watching a lot of television wherever she goes. (“There are ten zillion channels in Portugal. Half of them are QVC. Almost half of them are porn. And everything in between is both.”) We might call Crosley a “plucky” heroine — except that “plucky” is often a quality designated as exceptional, whereas Crosley’s verve feels native and exuberant.
And what a pleasure it is to wander with her. An astute observer of bloopers and loopholes, Crosley reflects, in her first essay, on the differences between American and Portuguese utilities: “All of our public structures are self-explanatory. When you press the PH button, you’re going to the penthouse. Not the stairs that lead to the lookout above the penthouse. Our basements are conveniently located at the base. No cellars that lead tosubfloors that lead to catacombs of ruins. The Goonies was just that one time, and it was a movie.”
The stories all have a Seinfeldian quality, in the best sense of that adjective. The humor is observational, the plots are subtly intricate, and each piece is populated by monsters masquerading as regular people. An anorexic and kleptomaniac roommate prompts Crosley to consider moving into a former brothel populated by the ghosts of dead hookers. A chapter on the severe temporal-spatial deficit with which the author is diagnosed explores the possibility that the world is populated by people with disabilities of one form or another, a bunch of “anti-X-Men with disadvantageous powers.”
Crosley isn’t a complainer, though. Far from it: she embodies, in fact, the great and rare quality of being game. Of her early living arrangements in New York she describes, “Showers in kitchens, toilets in living rooms, sinks in bedrooms. It was as if Picasso were born a slumlord instead of a painter.” A trip to Alaska finds the author wondering why Americans don’t make American pilgrimages like they used to, driving across the country to visit the former home of a president or tour a house made entirely out of corn. “American appreciation vacations,” she writes, “have become the purview of the very local or the very foreign. Which is a shame. The song doesn’t go, ‘If you can’t be with the one you love, leave the country.'” Crosley’s Alaska voyage, made in honor of a friend’s wedding, is centered around fun things like granola and high ponytails until the wedding party happens to witness a drunk driver in a pick-up truck strike a baby bear. That essay, “Light Pollution”, is thoughtful and vivid, funny and sad. It is followed by a story that centers on grade-school popularity and urination habits. The transition, it’s worth mentioning, does not jar a reader. It all feels natural.
Crucially — especially for short humorous nonfiction — there’s no point at which a reader tires of Crosley; no point at which suspicion grows that the author is in fact a “wacky” type who courts anecdotes. She’s likable, but weirdly so. And thank god for this. Likability in itself isn’t an ideal quality for writers of first-person comic essays. There’s got to be a modifier in there to add friction and novelty to the proceedings. David Sedaris, for example, is finicky; Steve Martin is absurd; Woody Allen neurotic, and so forth. Like those three masters of the genre, Crosley is an expert technician. Each essay zooms from the universal observation to a series of entertaining particulars and back out again. It’s a formula, sure, but a useful one, giving Crosley license to play fast and loose with language while keeping everything safely within her control. How Did You Get This Number is, it must be said, pretty much a flawless book. This isn’t to say that it’s perfect — just, quite literally, without flaws. Hell,Crosley even deploys the second-person verb tense successfully. And that’s never been an easy thing to do.