Breaking up is funny to do

Tales of heartache tickle the ribs, soothe the psyche

STAFF WRITERJuly 26, 2009 

— Like many inspired ideas, Michael Taeckens' book of true stories about bad breakups and broken hearts was hatched over drinks.

Taeckens and a friend were swapping tales about ill-fated relationships when his friend referred to her former loves as "insignificant others." That, Taeckens declared, would be a great book title.

The title didn't survive, but the idea did. "Love Is A Four-Letter Word: True Stories of Breakups, Bad Relationships, and Broken Hearts" (Plume, $16), showcases works from 23 authors, including Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Diaz, cartoonist Lynda Barry and PEN/Faulkner winner Kate Christensen.

The collection is funny, sad and cringe-inducing.

Taeckens, publicity director for Chapel Hill's Algonquin Books, edited the pieces. And he contributed his own story, about a college-era relationship with a visiting professor. They break up. The man leaves town. "A few days later," Taeckens writes, "I couldn't stop scratching."

"My entire knowledge of crabs came from the "Porky's" movies. I thought you got them from a prostitute in Florida. I didn't even know they had crabs in the Midwest, let alone that you could get them from a professor. When I realized what had happened, it was too late to confront him; he had already left town. It was like a joke, told days earlier, that I was only now just understanding -- and the punch line was in my underwear."

Now that's a good bad breakup story.

In Taeckens' essay and others, the object of affection, at first so perfect, gradually morphs. So it is when writer Wendy McClure hooks up with boyfriend Ben, who'd been working on a novel and was preparing to apply for a Guggenheim Fellowship.

With time, she sees the Guggenheim "clearly wasn't going to work out, considering the only thing he'd published had been a Listmania! list he'd posted on Amazon.com, with his favorite books, mostly surrealist erotica."

Also in the collection are UNC-Wilmington's Wendy Brenner, Duke University's Margaret Sartor and Patty Van Norman of Carrboro, who contributes two break-up letters written when she was -- get this -- 5 years old.

"Dear ugly," the first begins, "I will never love you NEVER"

Though many writers here portray themselves as clueless and love-challenged, Taeckens says most today are married or in long-term relationships -- proof that we can learn from our failures.

pkelley@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358-5271

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