Books

Icing on the 'Cake'

Sloane Crosley has to be the coolest name in writing -- a name that sounds like a writer, or perhaps a WASP clothier. And wouldn't you know that her first collection -- Crosley has written for the New York Observer, among many other places -- proves that she's charming, funny and, cumulatively, a little bit desperate.

Not about a man -- women aren't desperate for men anymore, or if they are they won't admit it -- but about the things her friends ask her to do, and at the various and sundry indignities meted out by life.

Crosley works in the publishing business, and her profession leads her to notice a certain recurring personality pattern.

"This is the English lit major who never should have left academia, a genius who has read all of V.S. Naipaul but can't photocopy title pages right side up. This person is very thin, possibly vegan, probably Ivy League. He or she feels as if answering the phone in a chipper voice is a form of legalized prostitution ... Regardless of sex, they all want to be David Foster Wallace when they grow up."

But the main set piece of "I Was Told There'd Be Cake" -- note the finely calibrated tone of civilized dismay -- is the wedding of a woman that Crosley hasn't seen or talked to in 10 years, who unaccountably asks her to be in her bridal party. It's page after page of gross imposition, and it is hilariously funny.

Crosley can toss off good one-liners ("It is my belief that people who speak of high school with a sugary fondness are bluffing away early-onset Alzheimer's"), but she excels at lengthy parabolas of frustration and slow-dawning realization. She's less like Fran Lebowitz than she is an all-too-sober Dorothy Parker.

In a piece about one-night stands, she tells us she didn't want to take a guy back to her place because "bringing him back to my bed made me feel like a prostitute, whereas going to his place made me feel like a call girl. A nonsensical distinction that seemed important at the time."

There's a recurring undertone of this book, and the genre to which it belongs -- Lebowitz, Sedaris et al. For a long time, literary humor tended to be filed under the heading of Domestic Tribulations: Betty MacDonald, author of "The Egg and I," Jean Kerr and on up through Erma Bombeck -- wacky neighbors, out-of-control crabgrass, leaking roofs.

Writers like Crosley are alone and drifting through the stone canyons of Manhattan, and underlying a crankiness that drifts over into misanthropy is a terrible loneliness and disillusion.

Crosley's topics -- crazy neighbors, terrible bosses, sex, family -- are not radical, but her take on them is very distinctive, deeper and sadder: "People are less likely to applaud as you grow older. Life starts out with everyone clapping when you take a poo and goes downhill from there. If you stop and think about it, it's a miracle that we get out of bed every day and brush our teeth and remember to buy toothpaste. We all deserve to be congratulated but sadly that would mean there's no one left to do the congrat- ulating."

Innocuous suburban chuckles or urban isolation -- choose your poison.

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