The House on Crash Cor­ner and Oth­er Unavoid­able Calamities

  • Review
By – September 12, 2011
When Jew­ish humorists write about them­selves, unpre­dictabil­i­ty is a giv­en.

This trio of auto­bi­ogra­phies approach­es life from dif­fer­ent paths, but com­mon themes emerge — sur­viv­ing an awk­ward ado­les­cence, embrac­ing moth­er­hood, grap­pling with can­cer, and mas­ter­ing assault weapons, for starters. But regard­less of sub­ject mat­ter, all three mem­oirs have moments where you will have to put the book down and let your­self laugh in trib­ute to these fear­less, bru­tal­ly hon­est scribes.

Psy­chol­o­gist Mindy Green­stein (The House at Crash Cor­ner) and writer Jill Kargman (Some­times I Feel Like a Nut) wax on what it means to be female and Jew­ish in New York. Green­stein, a prod­uct of Yid­dish-speak­ing Holo­caust sur­vivors and com­pul­sive gam­blers in low­er-mid­dle class Brook­lyn, and Kargman, a priv­i­leged child of the Upper East Side, have more in com­mon than it would appear on the sur­face. From child­hood to moth­er­hood and every­thing in between, no sub­ject, how­ev­er embar­rass­ing, is off lim­its. Coin­ci­den­tal­ly, both also like to blow off steam at the shoot­ing range and pro­fess to being good shots. 

Tele­vi­sion writer and standup come­di­an Michael Showal­ter (Mr. Fun­ny Pants) takes a diver­gent tack, pen­ning absur­dist, non­sen­si­cal, and round­about mus­ings that reveal lit­tle about his his­to­ry but much about his cre­ative process. Unlike Kargman and Green­stein, Showal­ter evolves lit­tle dur­ing the course of his book, spend­ing most of his time talk­ing about his affin­i­ty for sand­wich­es and sweaters. But he also earnest­ly debunks clichés and some­times he’s right on the mon­ey, as when he lists his max­ims for writ­ing and sell­ing a Hol­ly­wood screen­play: All High School Jocks are Evil Unless They Have a Secret Tal­ent That They Can’t Tell Their Fathers About.” 

Kargman is delight­ful­ly unin­hib­it­ed, reveal­ing the parts of life one would most want to hide — warts, humil­i­a­tions and all. The hap­pi­ly mar­ried, 35-year-old mom of three spins raunchy sit­com fod­der that lands some­where between PG-13 and X. But you get the idea that it’s a fam­i­ly you’d like to be part of, espe­cial­ly when the adult Kargman, her broth­er, and her par­ents vis­it a Los Ange­les tat­too par­lor to get match­ing K’’s inked on their bot­toms. She’s breezy and light­heart­ed, with child­hood mem­o­ries light on trau­ma but heavy on laughs. The worst trau­ma dur­ing her high school years at Taft, for exam­ple, (see chap­ter Wednes­day Addams in Bar­bi­etown”) was when Kargman dis­cov­ered she was one of only a hand­ful of prep school class­mates not to own a Patag­o­nia jacket. 

Green­stein, the most somber of the three, had a less com­fort­able child­hood, and most of her ear­ly mem­o­ries are painful. One class­mate, “ a pret­ty girl who knew ten dif­fer­ent ways to tie a scarf,” made fun of Green­stein for look­ing like an immi­grant. Greenstein’s best friend nick­named her The Shad­ow” in first grade because of my habit of fol­low­ing her around mind­less­ly, nev­er offer­ing opin­ions or sug­ges­tions for activities.” 

But humor is a time­less sur­vival mech­a­nism and the humor of Greenstein’s child­hood is not lost on her, espe­cial­ly when she describes a police squad’s arrival at her house fol­low­ing her mother’s 911 call report­ing that her dis­re­spect­ful son put the mil’khik dish in the fleyshik sink before moon­ing her (“BUT HE SHOWED ME THE TUCHUS!!!! HE SHOWED THE TUCHUS TO ME!!!!” her moth­er screamed after being chid­ed.) I didn’t need to sit on the brown felt chair to know what hap­pened next,” Green­stein writes. I heard four car doors open and some sharp laugh­ter in four-part har­mo­ny before the doors slammed shut in almost per­fect unison.” 

The last two-thirds of Greenstein’s mem­oir is seri­ous, as she becomes a prison ther­a­pist, a can­cer psy­chol­o­gist, a true boy mom” to two sons (free spir­its who love arm-farts) and, final­ly, a can­cer patient her­self. It’s dif­fi­cult to wring humor from hos­pi­tal bed rests and bouts of anx­i­ety over the chemother­a­py nee­dle, but Green­stein, in her stead­fast man­ner, per­se­veres and triumphs. 

Dis­cov­ered dur­ing a Botox ses­sion with her der­ma­tol­o­gist, Kargman’s can­cer left an eight-inch scar up her thigh à la Sal­ly from The Night­mare before Christ­mas” but the unsink­able Kargman braves it in her typ­i­cal fash­ion. I weird­ly dig it,” she says. It’s a jagged badge of hon­or that shows how lucky I am. And it’s a reminder that I need to slather sun­block on my kids like I’m papi­er-machéing them in zinc.” 

Showalter’s jour­ney is murki­er. In the book’s After­ward, he writes, Do I regret that, instead of writ­ing an accom­plished and sear­ing work of non­fic­tion, I wrote what basi­cal­ly amounts to a ran­dom string of uncon­nect­ed and inco­her­ent thoughts pri­mar­i­ly on my cats? It’s not an easy ques­tion to answer.

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