You know you're in trouble when the author has eight dogs and isn't a vet tech.
Scream: A Memoir Of Glamour and DysfunctionPublisher: Dey Street
Length: 285 pages
Author: Tama Janowitz
Publication date: 2016-08
Subtitled "a Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction", Tama Janowitz's Scream is a collection of linked essays attempting to explain how the 59-year-old writer wound up living in upstate New York, with little money, caring for her rapidly declining mother.
Janowitz is best known for her 1986 novel Slaves of New York, a wry look at the adventures of the young and poor in New York City as they search for success, great sex, and cheap apartments. The book was a bestseller, making its author a star. In addition to landing the cover of New York magazine, Janowitz attended glittery parties, art openings, and fashion shows, often in the company of close friend Andy Warhol.
Fame proved brief. Janowitz married gallerist Tim Hunt, adopted a daughter from China, and wrote eight more books. None saw the success of Slaves of New York. Cut to the present day. Janowitz has ostensibly left Brooklyn for Ithaca to care for her ailing mother, Phyllis.
Scream's first two essays, "A Visit to Dad", and "Dad, Guns, and Pot" set the tone, and it's a troubling one. Julian Janowitz, now 83, has smoked marijuana daily for 50 years. In "A Visit to Dad", Janowitz is summoned to her father's Massachusetts property, a reverse-mortgaged swampland she is to inherit.
Janowitz arrives at the swamp, husband, surly teenager, and many dogs in tow, finding her father's drug dealer is due momentarily. Instead of fleeing, Janowitz takes this moment to inform readers that as an unemployed 15-year-old, her father suggested she find summer employment by entering wet t-shirt contests. In "Dad, Guns, and Pot", which flows directly from "A Visit to Dad", Janowitz describes her father's loaded gun collection. Even as she realizes the house is unsafe, there is no leaving, for what hotel allows eight dogs?
Janowitz adds: "After I visit him, Dad usually sends me a hate letter. I have hundreds of them that go back decades."
We are only to page 17 of Scream. The questions are stacking up. Why eight dogs? Why does Janowitz save the hate letters? Why not maintain extremely distant relations with her father?
Answers are not forthcoming.
Janowitz now turns to her mother, whom she adored. Yet the writing concerning Phyllis Janowitz's final illness is graphic and often frankly tactless, repeatedly referencing incontinence.
"It doesn't stink the way some old people's homes do, except in my mother's room, where it usually smells like shit because her diapers are full and she just goes in them all the time.
I am trapped."
When writing of a parent's final days, one might consider utilizing a modicum of dignity and compassion. Kim Addonizio, Kathyrn Harrison, and Anne Lamott -- all writers whose relationships to their mothers were complex at best -- have handled comparable material with moving grace. Janowitz's sole consideration in this direction is to note her mother cannot read what she'll write anyway. Evidently this is license to describe her mother's losses in the most vulgar possible terms.
To be clear, Janowitz loved her mother deeply. The essays "Goodbye" and "Alone" bear this out. Never for a moment does she intend to humiliate her mother or damage her reputation. And yet.
Essays like "Divorce In The 1960's", "Israel in 1968", and "London In 1967" recount Janowitz's adolescent and teenage years with her mother and brother. Much of this is recounted in the manner of your shifty Uncle Marv, regaling you with stories of near-misses with colossal wealth over the Thanksgiving bird. In Janowitz's case, there is the Andy Warhol silk screen costing $200: "I am not going to quote what this silk screen would bring at auction today."
There was the beach cottage in Herliya Pituach, Israel, that would be "sitting on property worth millions" today. There was the teenaged Janowitz, giggling while having her photo taken with the Sex Pistols, thus ruining her the chance to become "the next Nancy Spungen". And so on.
In "I Was a Guest Editor At Mademoiselle" Janowitz sourly recalls her guest editorship at the now-defunct magazine. Editor Mary Cantwell is "intimidating". Also "pathetic". Asked to iron an expensive blouse on a photo shoot, Janowitz promptly burns it. The essay concludes with a blistering attack on British editor Mandi Norwood:
"I had known her, socially, for a long time -- but as soon as she got her position of power she was horrifically rude to me. And, almost singlehandedly, she made a fine magazine -- which had a niche, a real market audience -- into a piece of pulp. And the magazine was terminated."
Whether or not Janowitz is right isn't the question. What does she have to gain by settling a 40-year-old score?
One of the essays in Scream is entitled "How to Inspire Rage". In it, Janowitz describes herself as a person who exists "on this planet to irritate others. It wasn't intentional, but I was one of them."
Herein is lies the key to Scream and to Janowitz herself. She sees herself an unwitting victim of circumstance. That she followed up the burned blouse with an outrageously rude letter (reprinted here) wasn't the reason Conde Nast didn't offer her a job. Insulting an editor still active in New York publishing circles, no matter what happened, may not be a sharpest career choice. The essay "My New Home" chronicles the purchase of a farmhouse lacking plumbing, central heat, or safe flooring. Janowitz writes:
"I did not understand that pipes had to be connected to other pipes and then to some kind of tank or pump in order to have water. I did not understand that you had to have wires going through the walls connected to a pole, or a generator, in order to get electricity. I did not understand."
This is a woman who graduated summa cum laude from Barnard College. She's not stupid. But she's also not an adult. As a result, a great deal has gone wrong in Janowitz's life. And a great deal continues to go wrong. By the time the end of Scream arrives, a lawsuit from Janowitz's brother, appears. She didn't know you shouldn't spend your mother's money to pay your personal bills. Or board your horse. Janowitz continues to be shocked, amazed, outraged by each new catastrophe. The reader is weary.
In a book that concludes with "No Conclusion" instead of an actual conclusion, readers never learns if Janowitz will go to jail. Nor is her marital status ever clarified -- Hunt lives in Brooklyn, and Janowitz takes up with the contractor hired to repair the mess of farmhouse she's bought.
Maybe I ask too much of a narrative. Then again, if Janowitz were a talentless hack, I wouldn't care. She's not. Janowitz is a talented writer with a sharply observational eye and keen wit -- when she can be roused to look beyond her immediate self.