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Post Road Magazine #33

Scream, a Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction by Tama Janowitz, Published by Dey St/William Morrow

Jennifer Belle

As a writer, I'm a bit stuck. I know how to dive into writing a book—I settle into a character who is not unlike myself and I let her have tiny adventures which I think of as scenes (the moment she meets the love interest, gets fired, punches an old lady on the subway). I don't have an outline because how am I supposed to know how the book starts and ends or anything that happens in between if I haven't written it yet? I start in the middle, instead of at the beginning, and don't write the scenes in any kind of an order for the same reason. (Coltrane once said about composing jazz, "I start in the middle of a sentence and move both directions at once.") I know how to do this but there's another component: guts.

And Tama Janowitz is a writer who has guts.

I have to admit I have idolized Tama Janowitz ever since I read Slaves of New York and American Dad. I haven't always understood her, but I have always gotten a huge kick out of her, admired her, respected her, and been incredibly jealous. She is uncalculating. She doesn't think: will writing a character of a prostitute make me seem not serious? Or, is it a good idea to write a book about a completely unlikeable, shallow, money-grubbing girl who spirals downward for a whole book? Or, is it a good idea to name the main character Peyton Amberg? She doesn't think about things like that. She just does it.

When her book A Certain Age came out, I loved it so much I bought twenty copies and gave it to everyone for Christmas. In his review of the book in the New York Times, Henry Alford wrote about Florence, the main character, "Feeling bad about someone is not the same as caring about her." But I had deeply cared about her! Why had I loved her when no one else had been able to? What had I missed? My new sister-in-law returned it to me and said, "Thanks a lot. This book you gave me ruined my honeymoon." Ten months later they were divorced.

I have always thought Tama Janowitz and I had a lot in common—professor mothers who were accomplished poets, pot addicted fathers, similar family tensions, a similar upbringing. Some of her experiences have mirrored my own uncannily, including an unfortunate and awkward incident with an amorous Egyptian doorman named Achmed. Once, looking down at a full-page picture of her in a big glossy magazine, I noticed she was wearing yellow nail polish. I was also wearing yellow nail polish.

Now she has written Scream, and as soon as I held it in my hands I knew it would be a sort of primer for me, a treasure map, a Bible. I knew I would follow her fragile, surprising, self-deprecating tangents to a deeper understanding of writing itself. And it didn't disappoint. For the layman, it's an interesting look at the writer's life, a fascinating rags to riches to rags story—dinners with Andy Warhol in New York, an affair with Lawrence Durrell in Aix-en-Provence, hanging out at Lou Reed's apartment. These scenes are juxtaposed with flashbacks to her unusual and somewhat precarious childhood in New York and Israel, and set against the backdrop of bleak upstate New York, taking care of her ailing mother who, once brilliant, is now losing her mind. Tama's only escape is the local supermarket where the signs hanging above the aisles infuriate her. "Buns" and "Bread" are both seperately listed in aisle 17: "Let's say you want a bun. You would go to the aisle that says 'Bread.' You would not start looking for the 'Bun' aisle." Later in the book, she points out the sign above aisle 17 has changed. Now "Bakery," "Bread," and "Bread Coating" are all listed separately. I found myself laughing out loud at her internal fights with the "supermarket manager"; I wondered if it might be the funniest thing I'd ever read.

For the layman it's a hilarious and honest story about a writer.

For a writer, it's a support group.

In the kitchen at the Writers Room in New York City, I ran into a man I know. He asked me what I was working on, and I said a review of Scream, the new Tama Janowitz book.

"Oh that book is vile," he said.

"Did you read it?" I asked.

"No!" he said. "Did you read the review in the Times?"

"Yes," I said. "It didn't begin to do it justice."

He went on to tell me that he had become so infuriated from reading the review, he had written an angry letter to the editor and Tama had written a scathing, threatening letter back to him, "worse than Trump."

I went back to my desk and looked up his letter to the editor and I was shocked. He had taken the reviewers words and twisted them, completely missing the entire meaning of the book. From the review, he had gotten the mistaken impression that Tama Janowitz had mistreated her mother. I texted him:

—Wow I totally disagree. The book is a LOVE POEM to her mother. She honors her on every page. She gave up everything to move upstate to take care of her.

He texted back.

—Look. I didn't read the book. I was responding to the review. But I'm telling you her letter was like Trump.

But the writer in the kitchen, who has published many books, is everything Tama Janowitz is not. He is pretentious, grandiose, tyranical and cowardly, vain despite his five foot stature and toupee, and despite being penniless, actually quite Trumpian. Tama, on the other hand, is gentle and fragile, honest and funny, unpretentious and always, always self-deprecating.

One of her chapters is titled, "Once I was Brave." She still is. And having to deal with letters like the one from the writer in the kitchen is just the tip of the iceberg of what she has to face. Imagine writing a beautiful book only to be viciously attacked by a writer who hadn't even read it.

I wholeheartedly recommend Scream, despite its critics. I might refrain from giving it as a gift—my brother got married again to someone else, and I don't want to cause another divorce. All I know is I'm grateful I read it. Tama Janowitz has screamed in my ear, reminding me how to be brave and get started again.



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