Here's a quick way to determine if you're going to enjoy Diana Joseph's essay collection, "I'm Sorry You Feel That Way." Read the following:
"Yesterday my son was turning the pages in his eighth-grade yearbook so we could play a game I came up with called Guess Which Kids Are Retarded. The boy thought the game was terrible, so cruel and so mean that I should have to pay a fine, I should have to pay him ten bucks every time I was wrong."
If you find that paragraph offensive, you will hate this book.
If you know you should find this paragraph offensive but secretly find it hilarious, you should buy this book. Immediately.
Joseph is compulsively honest in the face of potential embarrassment. The dozen short, sharp essays here offer an overview of her eventful life, with particular emphasis on her fraught relations with men. She recalls her upbringing in a working-class Pennsylvania family dominated by a father who emphasized that it was her highest calling to maintain her virtue. We all know what that means.
"I was nineteen years old," she writes of one ill-fated relationship, "just arriving at that place some women go to invent complex inner lives for a certain kind of man, one too emotionally vulnerable to manage this kind of work on his own. I would be a savior, a fixer, a social worker, because Vincent Petrone needed me."
Joseph eventually disentangles herself from the aforementioned Mr. Petrone, but winds up getting pregnant on her 21st birthday and marrying the father. The union doesn't last long, although the son it yields becomes the leading man in her restless and improvised life.
Among the many pleasures of Joseph's writing is her refusal to traffic in the gushy bromides of motherhood. She is openly baffled by her child, disgusted by his atrocious personal hygiene, offended at his indolence yet at the same time needy for his love and approval.
She is also brutally candid about her deficiencies as a parent. She struggles to make ends meet. She worries that she neglects her son during periods of depression. But she never allows these doubts to curdle into self-pity. For a girl who grew up "with a talent for histrionics," her prose is stripped bare of sentiment. Instead, she employs a plain-spoken, often terse style that relies for its effect on the precision of her insights.
In one essay, she introduces us to her younger brother, a cop who brags relentlessly about his sexual escapades. "When I tell him, 'Travis, you are disgusting,' " she writes, "he sings in a high-pitched voice, 'Kinky sex freaks,' then in his regular voice he says he wishes he knew a nice girl, he asks me do I know any nice girls, do I know any nice girls I could introduce him to, any nice girls he could meet?" It's a moment of exquisite tenderness, as the mask of male vanity slips to reveal an aching loneliness.
Joseph has the ability both to discern and to forgive our darkest motives. When she complains about her common-law husband's neurotic housecleaning to his aging stepmother, "Kathleen patted my hand. 'Oh, honey,' she said. 'It will only get worse!' She lit up a Virginia Slim 100. With smoke swirling around her face, she looked wise. She also looked pleased, like she was glad to be delivering the bad news. It meant she wasn't alone."
Joseph tells us that her "main issue was, or to some extent still is, a kind of eternal hiccup of the crowded mind." The sense we get by the end of the book, though, is that her anxieties have a great deal to do with class.
Joseph is not showy about this. She barely acknowledges her transformation from wage slave to professor. But it's clear that the struggle has saddled her with the guilt of an impostor. Recalling a recent party, she writes, "They didn't know I didn't belong at any gathering where people took tidy sips of wine, then remarked upon its bouquet or nibbled on stuffed mushrooms or spread a thin layer of hummus across pita bread. When people weren't talking about their cats, they were repeating what they heard on NPR, or recounting what they saw on PBS, or reporting what they read in The New Yorker. I wanted to write my name in Cheez Whiz and dot the I with a heart."
This is as close as Joseph comes to anger. Like the best storytellers -- fictional or otherwise -- she treats her people with compassion. She manages to be very funny. But she refuses to reduce her family to a comedy routine. Her stories are often sad, but she never lionizes suffering. Instead, she sifts through the ruins of her romantic and emotional entanglements, with an eye on the absurdities we endure in the name of love.
"I'm Sorry You Feel That Way" is sure to offend the faint of heart, but it's hard to recall another collection of essays, or a memoir, with more natural charm.