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Mishna Wolff's I'm Down
purports to be both a ragingly funny family-dysfunction memoir à la Sedaris or Burroughs, and a perceptive take on racial identity. It's neither, but that shouldn't stop Wolff, who was raised by a white single father in the black working-class town of Rainier Valley, Washington, from making hay with this slight but basically sweet-tempered memoir.
Wolff's book has the contours of the classic coming-of-age tale, wherein the awkward and put-upon duckling triumphs over a series of endearing mishaps and eventually turns into a swan (the marketing copy identifies Wolff, ominously, as a "humorist and former model"). In Mishna Wolff's case, a background of legitimately harrowing but otherwise unremarkable poverty was made distinctive by her father's insistent adoption of all the hallmarks of urban African-American culture, including the flamboyant clothes, the jewelry, the aggressively ungrammatical argot and the emphasis on toughness and contempt for authority. The result, according to Wolff, was a comical decade-long reverse-passing drama and a childhood marked by substantial identity confusion.
Wolff mines this material for humor, but there's something weird and unintentionally telling going on here. The author treats her father's obsession as source material for rueful isn't-this-crazy comedy, but a man repeatedly putting his two young daughters in considerable danger to prove his "blackness" is, in fact, a sad and desperate spectacle. Other people understand this: John Belushi's famous imitation of Joe Cocker got its sting from the pathos inherent in the lengths white men will go to in order to demonstrate that they have "soul." Wolff's depiction of her father is startlingly tone-deaf, with what seems intended as a portrayal of harmless eccentricity often verging on the monstrous. Most readers, however jaded, don't think child abuse is funny.
The element of I'm Down
that, almost incidentally, carries real force is not the racial appropriation but rather the depiction of relentless poverty. Wolff mentions off-handedly that she and her sister often lived for weeks on tapioca and watery corn bread; there's a poignant scene where the teenage author, who has unwittingly high-achieved herself into attendance at a posh private school, forces herself to share her classmates' disdain for the school lunches that she, half-starving, secretly craves. Wolff describes how she unapologetically latched onto her rich classmates in order to take advantage of their ski trips and European vacations and palatial beachfront homes full of sleek electronics and fully stocked kitchens, only to discard the same girls with contempt once they had served her purposes. A more reflective writer would surely see how sad this is, but Wolff races ahead to the next set piece, like the comic pro she is.
is in many ways a catalogue of misplaced emphases and unintended literary effects (the prose, for one thing, is flat and clumsy, and the humor feels strained in the way that stand-up routines transferred to the page usually do), but one doesn't feel quite right blaming Mishna Wolff for this, exactly. One of the many irritating things about memoir as a genre is the way it makes special claims for itself, the way it seems to be criticism-proof. With a novel, a dyspeptic critic, especially one not unnerved by the daunting middle-class minefields of race and parenthood, can simply dismiss the lot as so much ill-conceived garbage. Since a memoir's power is ostensibly grounded in its truthfulness, however, it often feels that the only legitimate objection is to say, "this person's life is not interesting." The alternative, at least in this case, is only slightly less harsh: to say "you haven't done a good job extracting meaning from your life," or, "you don't understand the meaning of your own life." On Mishna Wolff's block, them's fighting words. I hope she doesn't "cap" me.