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MY LIFE AS A GAL: MEMOIRS, ESSAYS, AND OUTRIGHT SILLINESS by Alice Kahn (Delacorte: $15.95; 266 pp.)

June 14, 1987|Nancy Mairs | Mairs is the author of a volume of poetry, "In All the Rooms of the Yellow House" (Confluence Press), and a collection of essays, "Plaintext" (University of Arizona Press)

As a writer, Alice Kahn makes an amusing companion. One can imagine an afternoon with her on a shady veranda, sipping iced herbal tea and chuckling at her sharp and sprightly commentary on the passing North Berkeley scene. But one can imagine as well saying goodby at dusk and driving off, drained and with the beginnings of a headache, into welcome silence.

"My Life as a Gal" is Kahn's second collection of prose pieces, published here apparently just as they appeared originally in such periodicals as the East Bay Express and the San Francisco Chronicle. Coiner of the now-ubiquitous label, yuppies, Kahn focuses largely on the social foibles of the group most people mean when they mention Californians-- young or at least youthful, white, well-educated, materially privileged, physically fit. Her lively interests within this arena range from adult bookstores and pornographic films to the fashion scene at Berkeley High, from the "adult ice cream" custom-made on Oakland's Grand Avenue to the preservation of Nancy Reagan's black-and-yellow lounging suit in the Oakland Museum. She is adept at evoking the past's sweet pains and at sketching quirky characters and scenes in an equally oxymoronic present.

The title of Kahn's first collection, "Multiple Sarcasm," reveals her controlling tone in this book as well. She likes to write, she says in her introduction, "sadder but wiseass stuff," and later she adopts "the title 'female humorist.' " As a result, she has been "invariably described as a hip . . . or a radical . . . or a premenopausal Erma Bombeck," though without, I would add, Bombeck's generosity. Her own description of herself differs only in the terms of comparison, not in the comparative strategy itself: "Did I not hope to build my writing career as the Marcel Proust of North Berkeley, the Tina Turner of premenopausal sarcasm, the Jackie Collins of the East Bay espresso culture. . .?"

All these comparisons may have done Kahn a disservice, pressing her in some way to be "on" all the time. The result is a sense of strain like that one often feels in a young woman trying to win the world with her charms: vivacity with a manic edge, relentless, wearisome. It is the behavior of "galhood . . . that time when a woman's life is hopelessly complicated by the acquisition of feminine wiles." Though she claims to have passed now into the freer state of "old girlhood," her plea to the reader has a desperate, plaintive tone little different from a "gal's" plea to a potential lover: "Take a look, gimme a chance, watch me now. I can do satire, I can do sentiment, I can do social criticism. I can do the jerk! Why else am I slaving over a hot disk drive except for your affection?"

And she can do these. Too often her humor seems trite ("Once he hits two score, a man's chance of being turned into sausage goes up 6%. What could be wurst?"; or forced (calling her daughters "my two little sweetie pie darlings"); or merely baffling ("Was I disappointed? Let's put it this way, I felt like a Gloria Steinem wet dream"). But when she stops straining and looks at a subject deadpan, she is often genuinely funny. Sentenced to eight hours of traffic school for speeding, for instance, she scans the crowded classroom:

"My goodness, look at all these violators," I said to the woman sitting next to me. "The streets aren't safe."

"They are tonight," she replied.

Her observations of contemporary life can be acute ("I can't escape from the thought that having babies is just the latest fad, the 'in' thing for the consumer hordes"); her reflections on the past, poignant ("We didn't drink. We never saw marijuana. We were almost all virgins. . . . Before the prom, we had a 'coke-tail' party at Lutch's"). When she abandons the one-liners, off-color or otherwise, she connects firmly with her readers' fears, affections, memories.

That she doesn't do so often enough suggests bad editing. The book feels too long, many of the individual pieces too short. Naturally most writers want to hang on to every scribble--getting the words out in the first place is so hard --but a skillful editor could have helped Kahn weed out pieces that don't work, like the one on bowel movements ("The End Is Near"), and deepen the remaining ones. When Kahn records, self-deprecatingly, "a superficial impression (am I capable of any other?)," she clearly invites demurral, reassurance: Oh my dear, of course you are. And she is. The "essays" and "memoirs" in this collection are delightful enough without the "outright silliness."

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