Tidewater Review - May 2012

Some Assembly Required

reviewed by

Anne Stinson

Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott with Sam Lamott. Riverhead Books, New York. 271 pp. $24.25.
Anne Lamott is a quixotic writer, as anyone who has waded through her previous books must agree. To date she has churned out seven books of fiction and five of non-fiction. I confess that I have not read any of her fiction, but judging from this latest release (March 20, 2012), she’s up to her old tricks. Or, perhaps I should say “trick.” To be kind, one could label it autobiography. To be harsh, it could be labeled total self-absorption.
I dove into Some Assembly Required with high expectations, having read one of her early books. It had the misleading title Bird By Bird, and I had read it with keen enthusiasm, thinking it must be a nature tome, only to discover that it was a lesson in writing skills. That was okay by me, since it was a syllabus from her college teaching course on the craft and it was excellent.
The subtitle of this new book is A Journal of My Son’s First Son. It is, in essence, a diary – or a personal blog – of how to act as a new grandmother when, at age 55, she deems herself to be too young for the role. That situation doesn’t resonate as a crisis in this reader’s mind, but Lamott deals with it with courage and determination. Plus considerable angst.
The best part is that she is totally in love with the new baby boy. On the down side is that her son Sam, the new father, is 19 years old and still in college. The baby’s mother, Amy, is 20 and is a new graduate of cosmetology school and is without a job. The young couple is not married and quarrels a lot.
Anne Lamott’s greatest fear is that neither parent is mature enough to adapt to his or her new role and find a truce. Amy’s family lives in Chicago and North Carolina. If the kids split, Amy may take Jax (Yes, that’s the baby’s name. Sam and Amy just liked the sound of it.) with her if she bolts for the comfort of her loving family more than half a continent away.
My first parochial (unkind and probably untrue) image of California is that it has the greatest concentration of whackos in the entire USofA. Well – Anne and Sam’s father were never married either. Sam’s birth father didn’t hang around, only making an abashed drop-by when Sam was a teenager. Anne herself includes her abuse of drugs and alcohol in her salad years. She has been sober and drug-free for decades now, but her tell-it-all reveals that she was always shy and “odd” since she was a child. And, to be catty, she dresses her blond hair in dreads, even her bangs. Oh, meow. I’m ashamed of writing that line.
To be truthful, she’s a rich target for snarkiness, redeemed only by admiration for her rescue of her life on a rocky road. Frankly, she’d have improved her book with less of her faith issues. Both Anne and Sam talk to each other a whole lot about their conversations with God. They are both devout Presbyterians, an attachment Anne flavors with visits to an ashram for further enlightenment.
Never mind. She spices the events of Jax’s first year of life with humor at her awkward place in the changed family. She vows to be uncritical of the young parents. It’s not an easy task, since she’s paying the rent on their too-small apartment, filling their larder, and never, ever criticizing their bickering. She works hard to win over Amy. The results are discouraging.
Just when the reader is ready to open a vein at the mawkyness of it all, there’s one of several brief chapters written by Sam to diffuse the drama. Often his prose sounds so much like his mother’s it’s uncanny. And he frequently uses humor to soften his messages, just as she does.
When Anne writes of her jealousy when her son seems to ignore her, or other people want to cuddle with Jax, she shows her wry wit in conversation with her son: “Jesus had his good days and bad days and stomach viruses... He had a mom who had good days and bad days of her own, and she must have been jealous sometimes of the people Jesus chose to spend time with instead of her. ‘Who are these people and what do they have that I don’t have?’ It’s pretty easy to be deeply selfish when it comes to sharing your child. Even Mary must have been like, ‘Back off! He’s mine,’” she writes.
Another example that sounds sooo casual, sooo California: Anne has a house guest, an old friend, for a five day visit. “{Mary and I} met 35 years ago in Bolinas and were instantly inseparable and spent years drinking and taking acid together....”
During the visit, the two women take Jax into San Fracisco for the Good Friday service at Mission Dolores, one of the original churches founded by Junipero Serra. Jax was awake for the last three Stations of the Cross, which Anne likened to “a nature hike.”
She’s nothing if not ecumenical; the service in Spanish reminded her of a recent service she attended at a Fijian church, celebrated in the Fijian language.
The story stops with Jax’s first birthday party. Anne writes as her final paragraph, “Jax is absolutely nutty, like the rest of us, fluent, and fluid like a stream, with lightness, richness, silkiness, stones: echoes, undertones, overtones, melodies, whining, burbling: cool water flowing, pinging, and roaring past pebbles and plants and its own clear self.”
I write that the story stops. It doesn’t end. I read in a recent newspaper that Sam and Amy did indeed split and beloved Jax went East with Amy. One can only guess and wince at the heartbreak the author suffers. Surely she weeps as she rereads the words she has written about Jax, his first roll-over, the first tooth, learning to walk with the first drunken steps, and his first words, “mama, dada and nana.”
Not everyone’s cup of tea, this book. Make mine a martini!

Anne Stinson began her career in the 1950s as a free lance for the now defunct Baltimore News-American, then later for Chesapeake Publishing, the Baltimore Sun and Maryland Public Television’s panel show, Maryland Newsrap. Now in her ninth decade, she still writes a monthly book review for Tidewater Times.