Have You Found Her by Janice Erlbaum

Monica Shores

This extraneous and monotonous reporting is made all the more regrettable by the fact that at the heart of this book is a truly unusual series of events, the full extent of which is not revealed until the very end.

Have You Found Her

Publisher: Villard
Subtitle: A Memoir
Author: Janice Erlbaum
Price: $14.00
Length: 368
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0812974573
US publication date: 2008-02

When Janice Erlbaum, author of Have You Found Her, meets homeless teenage junkie Samantha, she’s instantly smitten. Brandishing a hand cast and a vocabulary that shames those of non-junkies twice her age, Sam is a bright, vulnerable girl who shares Erlbaum’s love of literature and writing. Erlbaum immediately begins breaking the rules of the shelter where she volunteers and Sam lives, bringing presents and meeting her in public places. She curses herself for not having more in common with Sam, “‘Damn it,’ I thought, ‘why didn’t I ever do any heroin?”

Since Sam is “a rare specimen, a real unicorn”, Erlbaum cannot bear to sever their ties -- not when Sam is hospitalized for her infected hand, not when she is transferred to a psych ward, nor when she leaves the psych ward for rehab. It quickly becomes apparent that Sam is a very sick person, and that she will spend much of her future institutionalized. But Erlbaum is in it for the long haul, and she’s taking her audience along every step of the way.

Soon, Erlbaum’s life consists exclusively of riding the subway to Sam’s institution du jour, visiting, then returning home to eat dinner and smoke pot. Despite the profound redundancy of such days, Erlbaum seems loath to let them go by without description. In one typical instance, Erlbaum is en route to the hospital when she “decide(s) to stop at the donut shop.” Her stomach is growling as she carries the donuts up to Sam’s room. (Donuts, the reader thinks, something important is about to happen with those donuts.) But Sam’s room is empty, and Erlbaum realizes she must have been discharged. She confirms this fact with the nurse. She imagines the dinner she can have with Bill “a stir-fry, maybe, with tofu and vegetables.” She eats the donuts on the way home. End of incident.

Perhaps I’m overly sensitive when it comes to donuts, but my objection is a valid one. Why experience this moment as it happens when it lends nothing to the narrative? Simply being told that Sam was discharged would have expedited the action, and sacrificed nothing -- in fact, it would have been kinder to a reader’s instincts, which is to expect every detail to justify its inclusion.

Erlbaum consistently provides entire passages that are irrelevant, or tedious and inefficient. She recreates the moment of telling Sam that she’s planning to propose to her boyfriend Bill, a fact of which the reader is already aware. The only possible reason for this section seems to be that Sam is going to ruin the surprise. (She doesn’t.) Erlbaum and Bill take Sam to Coney Island, and while Bill and Sam are on the roller coaster, the cars get stuck on the first incline. Erlbaum pictures everyone on the machine dying. (The machine starts up again without issue.)

She even records voice mails left with Sam’s rehab counselor: “Hey Maria, it’s Janice, I’m on my way home now; sorry I missed you today.” No medical detail is too mundane to recount, no verbal exchange too redundant to replicate. The desire for veracity is admirable, but not an excuse to abuse a reader’s attention.

This extraneous and monotonous reporting is made all the more regrettable by the fact that at the heart of Have You Found Her is a truly unusual series of events, the full extent of which is not revealed until the very end of the book. When Erlbaum first applies to volunteer at the shelter, employees there caution her repeatedly that the girls lie. Her friends and boyfriend all warn against bringing Sam into her home, or letting Sam know where she lives. “She’s very good at getting what she wants”, a shelter superior tells Erlbaum. “Some of these girls will take over everything, if you let them.”

I was frustrated by such consistent foreshadowing that continued to remain unfulfilled for three fourths of the (sizable) book, and the aforementioned false leads made me doubt that any revelation would even come. When Erlbaum finally uncovers what exactly is going on with Sam, the truth is shocking but diluted. The payoff has been delayed for so long that much of my curiosity was gone.

Erlbaum’s prose is clean and competent, but rarely allowed to shine through the weight of her reportage. She has moments of impressive precision, noting a girl’s “days-old baby, smaller than a loaf of bread” and “plasticized sneakers shaped like steam irons”, and occasionally displays a great sense of humor: “I should have cured homelessness already. Instead, I had decorated it.”

She’s particularly skillful in rendering convincing dialogue, and delivers her thoughts as they occurred in the moment, no matter how misguided or uncharitable those thoughts may seem: “Welcome to welfare, Ellenette. Good luck with your shitty, limited life.”

Alas, her talents are not enough to redeem the work as a whole, which abandons potentially promising moments of reflection, such as the resentment that comes with tending to a sick loved one, or the oddly romantic tone that dominated her relationship with Sam, for week-to-week minutiae.

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