Books

Tama Janowitz's Memoir, 'Scream' May Leave You Grumbling

You know you're in trouble when the author has eight dogs and isn't a vet tech.


Scream: A Memoir Of Glamour and Dysfunction

Publisher: Dey Street
Length: 285 pages
Author: Tama Janowitz
Price: $25.99
Format: hardcover
Publication date: 2016-08
Amazon


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.

4

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors


David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Music

David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.

Music

Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".

Music

Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.

Music

The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Music

Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.

Film

NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.

Music

South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.

Music

Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.