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June 18, 2008
RATING: 7/10

When it comes to books, there is something to be said for a lackluster first publication. For many writers, the first book is often like the weekend warrior garage band's first album, a collection of over-exuberant, half-baked ideas haphazardly thrown out there more as an experience-accumulating first step than a tightly analyzed self-descriptive statement. It can always be shrugged off or completely disavowed later when time has distilled a higher-proof product, and dissipates the weight of a potential "sophomore slump."

While Sloane Crosley's debut, I Was Told There'd Be Cake, is not the caliber of work that would suggest the launch of an Annie Proulx-type career (Crosley has apparently now set her sights on fiction), and although she often writes with only half the conviction of superstar essayists like David Sedaris, who she has been repeatedly and inappropriately compared to, Crosley's works do succeed in making discourses centered on many excruciatingly mundane experiences - playing the ancient computer game "Oregon Trail" as a kid, or volunteering at something she had no real experience or familiarity with - funny and interesting in a very non-bourgeoisie, water cooler anecdote sort of way. The book, a collection of 15 essays, reads in much the same way as a pile of developmental scripts for The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm might, before the benefits of superb acting are applied to it. Crosley's essays do not unfold in the same manner as those of Sedaris or his kindred spirit in Public media, Sarah Vowell, in that every paragraph isn't loaded with zingers and would-be punchlines; instead, they lazily swim around kernels of everyday comedic bits and ruminate in unspectacular fashion. In "The Beauty of Strangers," a shorter piece on the more weighty moments of good fortune that offset Crosley's occasionally inconvenient bad luck, as a Korean manicurist spots the author absentmindedly gnawing on her nails in the subway - and responds by smacking and shrieking "No bite!" - it is easy to imagine Larry David, with the help of Karen Maruyama (the "drawer need three dolla" parking lot attendant from Season 1), turning the episode into a hilarious moment of Curb Your Enthusiasm. To be fair to the Seinfeld mastermind, Crosley's work, still green as a sapling, is L.D.-light at best, but nonetheless carries with it the same sort of wit that is capable of making a universal experience, like locking oneself out of not one but two apartments on moving day, into a chuckle-inducing tale.

Although it takes her a while to get going, Crosley does eventually settle in to a humorous rhythm, with the strongest essays being clustered past the half-way point. Early on, the general banality of "The Pony Problem" and "Christmas In July" make for difficult reading; the former centers on a collection of toy horses, which Crosley is neurotically embarrassed by, and her over-dramatized quest to discreetly dispose of them (which is complicated by further hand-wringing on the karmic consequences), while the latter sifts through the psychology of religious conflictions that only lapsed Jews can mine (okay, Catholics and Mormons have similarly ridiculous faiths that are mainstream enough to be lampooned and widely understood). But in her third essay, "The Ursula Cookie," Crosley finally strikes a respectable balance between the universality of the psychotic boss experience and the details of her own idiosyncrasies; the piece contains not only a hilariously large cookie in the likeness of her tirade-prone employer, but also mentions the new American cultural gold standard of 9/11.

The best of the bunch are paired back-to-back in the book's third quartile, the first being "Sign Language For Infidels," immediately followed by "You On A Stick." The first of the two essays relates Crosley's brush with community involvement, a notoriously fringe endeavor amongst the stereotypically self-absorbed yuppies of American metropolises. Crosley is driven to volunteerism not so much as a function of any selflessness or budding philanthropic bent but rather, as she freely admits, a slight residual pressure from her proper suburban upbringing and a more weighty resignation to what she aptly describes as "the universal desire to avoid being the asshole." Seeking out a project that would only marginally infringe on the schedule of a twentysomething in Manhattan while providing a weighty enough Medal of Honor for pinning to the internal lapel of her own self-image, Crosley eventually settles on a position at the Museum of Natural History's butterfly exhibit. Although the post only requires a few hours of her time on Saturdays, within a month Crosley is flaking out in favor of catching a movie with her mother or simply sleeping in. Eventually, after a clumsy encounter with her butterfly exhibit nemesis, the legendarily large Atlas Moth, Crosley bails for good, but both before and after her final frenzied flight from the museum the story digresses into humorous asides about her high school days as a retail clerk at the mall, her fish-out-of-water experiences in the museum itself, and one final, seemingly inescapable conundrum.

Although it is covered in an almost tooth ache-inducing glaze of Sex and the City-style babbling on clothes and hair and fickle female relationships, "You On A Stick" is the most impressive passage from I Was Told There'd Be Cake. Impressive because while the premise of the piece - Crosley is sucked into the bridal party of an estranged high school classmate - won't pique the interest of many beyond the legion of Sarah Jessica Parker devotees, the essay is written with a wit and candor that makes it stand out as one truly worth reading. This, if anything, is a testament to the potential in Crosley's writing; there is no abandonment at the altar, no drunken post-nuptial reception sex, no incendiary bombs of Aqua Net-encrusted hair inadvertently set ablaze, yet the selection is one of the most engaging, interesting, and well-written of the bunch.

A few pages later begins "Smell This," which is hands-down the most clever essay in the book, and one wrought with laugh-out-loud moments. Granted, it is hard to go wrong with a non-fiction story centered on a mysterious turdlet that inexplicably appears on her bathroom floor after a cozy après-dinner desert party, but Crosley frames the scenario, and her attempts at a subtle who-dunnit inquiry of her friends, in a manner that is hilarious and engaging. To boot, she does so without resorting to pulling on the overly-graphic narrative threads of grossness that at all times dangle within reach of a plot about feces.

The sort of unguided and naive sentiments that were woven through "Sign Language For Infidels" and its forays into not-for-profit work pop up again when Crosley expounds on her "vegetarian" diet, which includes life forms with eyes (there's a reason people from Manhattan aren't taken seriously outside of New York or Los Angeles), but in "Lay Like Broccoli" they aren't half as cleverly delivered. This particular essay regresses back to the inconsequential nature of the plastic pony predicament that began the collection and, especially considering that "Sign Language For Infidels" and "You On A Stick" are not only the strongest but also the longest essays in the book, at just six pages it is hard not to consider it thinly veiled filler. While navigating the internal debate over her fluctuation from veganism to a "vegetarianism" that includes a plethora of piscine meals, (especially for herbivores like myself) there is anticipation of a cuttingly clever touché barb for the meat-eaters that harassingly debate Crosley's diet, but it never comes. When she ruminates on those who incredulously reason that, if she's going to eat cheese, "why not eat the cow," there's a sense, especially after the hilarity of "Smell This," that she'll turn the liquid-consumption-equals-killing argument on the offensive brute (it's always chest-thumping guys who harass vegetarians, isn't it?) and ask why, when his girlfriend swallows in the throws of coitus, by his logic he doesn't offer her a mouth-filling bite of his manhood. Instead Crosley shrugs off her dietary hypocrisy and cops to a love of sushi, which would be fine if her reasoning were constructed with the wit of earlier essays. But it isn't, and "Lay Like Broccoli" reads like nothing in particular.

Essays are a tough bag for writers, in that to have true merit they often must fall into a limited number of camps. On the one hand there are scholarly conquests by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, who when not delivering taught intellectual screeds against the conventions of society (God Is Not Great) still manages to be clever and shocking (see his position on "Why Women Aren't Funny"). On the other there are the gut-wrenching tales from the likes of David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell, which at least in the case of the former, as has recently been pointed out, may owe their hilarity to being more fiction than fact. Considering that Sedaris' work up through his third collection, Holidays on Ice, embellished or not, can't hold a candle to his more recent essays, there is reason to let hope spring eternal for Sloane Crosley's career as an essayist. She's just getting started. I Was Told There'd Be Cake doesn't resort to the type of shock-and-awe fact tactics that only someone like Hitchens can aptly deliver, and Crosley doesn't have the kind of nasally-pitched real-life voice that can, however subconsciously, make a Sedaris or Vowell essay read funnier than it actually is. Yet Crosley still delivers several highly memorable, and easily relatable, recollections from everyday life, and the strongest essays in the collection are truly worthy of praise. Even when a selection lands flat, it isn't completely off, and with a few more witty asides or a bit of edginess the lackluster essays could have been easily transformed. In light of the book's longer pieces being the most well-written and the most rewarding, we should all hope that Crosley takes the freedom afforded by a so-so but not completely forgettable debut to forgo the filler next time around and deliver a sophomore smash.

Oh, and there's also this weird bit of promotional media.

SEE ALSO: www.sloanecrosley.com

--
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.

See other articles by Eric J Herboth.

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