The Shift from Square to Smart

February 3, 2009 at 3:28 pm Leave a comment

When I first started reading Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir by Janice Erlbaum, I’ll admit I felt more than a little bit like a goody-two-shoes. Girlbomb tells the story of Erlbaum’s misspent youth from the moment she walked out on her mother at age 15 through her life and times in a shelter, a group home, back at home and out on the streets, all the while cracked out like only a teenager in Washington Square Park in the late 1980s can be. I meanwhile grew up primarily in an affluent upstate suburb where I insistently went to school everyday, actually once made a rather inane New Year’s resolution to say no to drugs (I was in middle school, give me a break), went to a nice college full of nice girls, graduated on time and pretty promptly got a job. I was even wearing a jumper the day I read it, for Pete’s sake. I felt distinctly square.

But as I continued to lurch my way through Erlbaum’s memoir, that feeling changed. I stopped feeling like an abject loser and realized how wholly sad her story was. It was the tale of a life disrespected and utterly wasted. On the surface, Girlbomb might well be telling the story of a crazy 1980s teenage-hood in New York City, but what really got through to me was just how many moronic and pointless decisions one person really can make.

And nothing bad truly happens to Erlbaum in the book (aside from the obvious drugs, sex and alcohol things that she herself chooses), a fact which makes her decisions all the more pointless. This book does not moralize or hint that these choices were perhaps bad ones and thank heavens she has now reentered society as a respected author. There is no climactic moment where she realizes the error of her ways or dies in a blaze of glory. Instead, Erlbaum traipses through the 1980s drug and club scene of downtown New York and nothing happens. She isn’t arrested, she never dies (okay, she comes close, but that isn’t surprising considering the amount of coke we’re talking about here), she doesn’t contract any life-changing and/or horrifying diseases, she doesn’t get beaten up by her dealer and the toughest thing she has to deal with is a curfew she deems cruel set by her remarkably lenient mother and the fact that her two best friends like each other more than they like her.

But the overarching message isn’t about pointlessness or hardship. Rather, my first impression was dead on. All through her crazy antics and drug-induced freak-outs, Erlbaum is undoubtedly saying “yeah, this was a folly of my youth, but, damn, don’t you think it was a cool folly?” The book is filled with an undertone of ineffable coolness that just comes off feeling a trifle forced and hardly true. No, Jan, it wasn’t a cool folly. It was just stupid.

And that is what the reader takes away from Girlbomb: Erlbaum needlessly, idiotically and senselessly wasted her life. The sheer stupidity and pointlessness was what ended up really getting to me. The book calls itself a “compelling story,” but to actually be compelling, I think something dramatic followed by some kind of death or turn-around would really have to happen. The entire book comes off as pointless, since by the end of it, our dear Janny has set herself back on the road away from drugs, but not in a particular redeeming or dramatic way. One minute, she’s shouting profanity at her lover and then trying to make up with her boyfriend and the next she’s just out of the bad stuff and living in her own apartment (paid for by her dead grandmother) as she goes off to college. It’s all a trifle jarring, bizarrely more so than all the shocking nonsense that goes on before that moment, and the book just ended up confusing me more than anything else.

Click here for the first chapter read by the author herself, courtesy of Poets & Writers podcast.

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Entry filed under: Biography, Non-fiction.

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