There is no way to avoid the fact that we will not be everything in life. A big decision today inherently means fewer options later. Fate will deal you a hand and that hand will, at minimum, not be the entire deck. As much as that might bum us out, the constraints of ourselves also breed their own kind of magic. With Meaty, the collection of essays by Chicagoan and performer Samantha Irby, that magic comes in the form of the author’s unapologetically raw humor, which acts as its own consolation prize for a less-than-perfect existence.
The idea that Irby’s life might turn into a fairy tale was not part of the game from an early age. “I knew that if I was ever to be rescued from a goddamned tower, “ she writes, “prince charming better have done some motherfucking push-ups beforehand.” Self-deprecation is the tool she employs most often to slay the negativity that could bloom from such a perception, with all its soul-preserving power.
It’s not hard to be drawn in by Irby, who endures plenty in her first 33 years. Her parents bore her late, her mother 40 years old and suffering from multiple sclerosis. “The obstetrician warned her against it,” Irby writes, “saying I would surely be born with Down syndrome or some other form of mental retardation.” Also, her father, 50 years old and two heart attacks in the can by the time Irby arrives, was prone to violence. “He hummed along with Nancy Wilson on the radio as I felt my eye begin to swell shut,” she writes. “He would call the attendance office in the morning, tell them I was home sick for however many days it took for my face to return to normal.” Still, Irby steadfastly keeps the collection from self-pity. That’s the real enemy, you trust. A moment turned to the dark side might be the last not covered in the stuff.
When Crohn’s disease descends upon her at age 25, a malady that involves a good amount of stomach pain and frequent trips to the bathroom, Irby takes stock in little consolations. She writes to a prospective boyfriend: “Please buy decent toilet paper. Oh, I know. That Scott’s business is hella cheap. Plus there are 1000 sheets! It’s such an amazing economical value! But it feels like coarse sandpaper on my butthole.” Her disease makes for frequent adjustments to everything from diet to work to sex. A little understanding is all she asks, and she promises to make it entertaining.
Irby has a knack for describing the travails of her life with a quick clarity, prose that cuts to the chase. Dealing as a child with her mother’s health complications after a car accident, she writes, “I didn’t understand the difference between God and the President, yet I knew which pills went with breakfast, and which ones were taken after dinner.” Something about delivering the predicament in so few words seems a kind of solace for Irby, and for the reader. Lemonade, sure, but tasty, tasty lemonade.
Such a fraught childhood made Irby miss out on much, like learning the requisite blackness that is the norm in her native Chicago. She writes, “I’m not Cornel West, bitch, I don’t know shit about black people! I’m from the fucking suburbs!” Despite the disconnect, Irby can always be counted on to find the upside. “But I have an innate sense of rhythm, so I’m a total blast to take to the disco, yet you can also relax with the knowledge that I’m not going to embarrass you at your wine and cheese party by saying ‘pitcher’ when I’m referring to a photograph.” Irby is equally at home delivering le mot juste or a belly laugh.
This tendency toward the easy joke can weigh down Meaty, especially in the more canned “white people versus black people” sections that comedians have run into the ground for decades. Moreover, the end of the collection starts to feel piecemeal. Still, a little slap-shoddiness is fine so long as the book avoids bitterness. “Scariest word in the dictionary,” Irby writes of “bitter.” “Meanest word their ever was. Nastiest tasting word to have in your mouth.”
Everyone on the planet is at some point faced with her own shortcomings. For some, it just comes earlier than others. That’s why it’s so easy to relate to Meaty. Irby reveals valuable life lessons about our limitations, namely, embrace the hell out of them. The laughter and tears might not summon Prince Charming, but they can still do wonders for loneliness.
About the author:
Art Edwards reviews have appeared in Salon, Colorado Review, The Los Angeles Review, The Collagist, JMWW, Entropy, Cigale Literary Magazine, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown.