In 2007 the satirical news website The Onion published an article, joking that “This American Life Completes Documentation of Liberal, Upper-Middle-Class Existence.” For those out of the loop of America’s public radio network (there must be someone), This American Life is a critically popular, if not self-righteously Liberal (big-case ‘L’) radio show that airs on WBEZ. The joke is that This American Life refers not to this “American” Life, but rather This Affluent, Liberal-Thinking American who listens to public radio. But more on that later.
One of my favourite contributors to the show is Sarah Vowell, but it wasn’t until I finished reading her second book, Take The Cannoli: Stories from the New World, that I figured out exactly why this was. Sure, she playfully references The Godfather in her essays, but in truth the book doesn’t come close to the huge comic appeal that other contributors to the show such as David Sedaris or Mike Bribiglia manage; nor does she handle the historical case studies with as much guile or passion. In the essay, “What I See When I Look at the $20 Bill” she attempts to put forth her anguish over former-President Andrew Jackson’s betrayal of the Native-Americans, who forced them to leave their homes and settle out in the west. However, Vowell covers the topic with – to use her own line, “all the subtlety of a Don Rickles punch line.” She frequently reminds us that she is 1/16th Native-American and whines on about the mistreatment from the White Man of “her people” as she travels through the Trail of Tears. But then again, what else do you expert from a bleeding-heart liberal?
But the thing is, when Vowell isn’t being what you and The Onion would call stereotypically left-wing, the book comes alive with wit and wisdom in superbly crafted anecdotes. She is far more successful with “Chelsea Girl,” where she discusses the famous Manhattan hotel The Chelsea; the building Bob Dylan stayed at around his Blonde On Blonde days, at which Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey and at which Sid Vicious did or did not murder Nancy Spungen. The reason this essay works is because it is not about the hotel at all, it’s about her conflict between its aura and the fact that it’s absolutely disgusting (she finds a used condom on her floor). This – I realised – is why Sarah Vowell is one of my favourite contributors. The stories weren’t just funny, or just introspective, or even just passive-aggressive – there are plenty of people who can manage that (see: every comedian of the past twenty years). It’s that she expresses her views with such antipathy that you’re not left feeling pity or mockery, but rather a sense of unexpected humour which seems so incidental and natural. She doesn’t pretend to hate these things the way that Larry David or Ricky Gervais does, but rather acknowledges that she finds pleasure in the things that supposedly annoy her. While she complains about insomnia, not driving, and the dereliction of The Chelsea you get the sense that if she had the choice she wouldn’t change a thing.