Lives of Comic Desperation - by Marc Acito

Our guest blogger is the novelist, humorist and screenwriter Marc Acito. He was the winner of Oregon Book Awards' 2005 Ken Kesey award for Best Novel for How I Paid for College. His latest book is the sequel Attack of the Theater People. This entry was first published in 2009.

I'm a promiscuous library user. At any given time, I've got two dozen books out and as many on hold. I got into the habit when I was poor and couldn't afford books. I probably shouldn't say this, since it's in my best interest that readers buy books, but I never buy a book I haven't read. I figure why own it if I'm only going to read it once?

So I use the library to test drive--promiscuously. If I love something enough that I need to own it, then I buy it, underlining and scrawling marginalia as I re-read.

As a result, I'm a familiar fixture at the Hillsdale Library, my local branch. Yes, it's true. Despite being a gay guy with a trendy haircut, a ready wit and the same waist size I had in junior high, I live in Deepest Suburbia. I prefer to think of it as the Lower West Hills.

Living as I do in the burbs, I’m a huge fan of books about desperate housewives. Reading stories about smart, funny women who are miscast in their lives is like having a marathon phone call with your best girlfriend, assuming your best girlfriend is hilarious, brilliant and completely honest.

A perfect example is the compulsively readable We Are all Fine Here by Mary Guterson, in which a married woman finds herself pregnant after a liaison with her old boyfriend in the bathroom at a friend’s wedding. You know those friends who are constantly screwing up but you secretly enjoy it because it makes you feel better about your own life? That's what reading this book is like.

We Are All Fine Here delivers Hitchcockian suspense without anyone being chased by a crop duster or rappeling off Abe Lincoln’s nose. From page one, questions abound: Who is the baby’s father? Who will the heroine end up with? How much longer can she hide her morning sickness? (announcer voice) These questions and more will be answered As The Stomach Turns.

In contrast to the friend who screws up is the friend who’s got it all together. For that, you must turn to Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther. Forget the melodramatic MGM weepie with Greer Garson. This slyly comic story of a well-bred Englishwoman on the eve of World War Two fascinates me with such pressing concerns as how do you find a charwoman on short notice and what do you say at a shooting party?

But Mrs. Miniver’s contentment with her privileged life is tempered by her wry observations, like how she longs to invite the scintillating half of the couples she knows to dinner, then invite the boring ones another night that she could cancel. It’s like Mrs. Dalloway for Dummies.

The best literary friend of all, however, is the narrator of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, who is the perfect synthesis of the first two—a mild screw-up who still has her head screwed on straight. Long before Nora Ephron felt bad about her neck, she wanted to wring the neck of her philandering husband. Because the novel is reportedly based on Ephron’s own calamitous marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein, it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than the acerbic author herself in the role, even after Meryl Streep played her in the movie.

This book proves the adage that “Writing well is the best revenge.” The heroine of Heartburn writes cookbooks—which is appropriate given Ephron’s totally edible prose. It’s a delicious book, one you alternately want to gorge on yet savor, and the kind of hilariously wise and well-observed novel that makes readers wish the author were their best friend and makes writers like me contemplate suicide.

While I lead my own life of quiet desperation, however, I depend on these fictional friends they way I do my real ones: for comfort and laughs and inspiration. I take solace in knowing that there are others in the same boat. Especially if that boat is dry-docked in Deepest Suburbia.