Review by Jaime R. Herndon
The first Laurie Notaro book I read was The Idiot Girls’ Action-Adventure Club: True Tales from a Magnificent and Clumsy Life. I remember laughing out loud and snorting in a very unladylike way in public while reading it, and calling one of my best friends because she had to hear this tale of someone who was just as awkward and unsure as we were. Her humor was self-deprecating and good-natured. Given her past books, I was eager to dive into her newest one, The Potty Mouth at the Table.
Reading Notaro’s latest book took much longer than I expected. I could only stomach it in small doses. There were times where her humor is relatable and genuinely funny. In the essay “Don’t Make Me the Asshole,” when she finds out someone has been using her shower puff, and it’s either her husband or her nephew. The idea of someone else’s DNA on her puff freaked her out and she calls a hilarious family meeting in which everyone is given a color-coded puff and the rules of puff-using are explained.
Other essays fall flat, like the short piece “Striptease,” in which her friend reveals a tattoo of a flaming cupcake covering her entire back. Notaro’s response was, “You’ll never make enough money in your lifetime to get that thing removed.” The rest of the essay centered around the awkwardness of the situation and Notaro telling readers to praise any tattoo a friend gets.
Notaro also seems to have a fascination/disgust with “foodies.” There are several essays – “I Hate Foodies” and “Hierarchy of Foodies” – that were overly snarky, that could have been very funny if the undercutting tone wasn’t present. If you are a fan of snark, the humor in this book is amusing; I found it tiring and unnecessary, and overused. Unlike Notaro’s other books, which were self-aware of her awkwardness that allowed the reader to identify with her, the tone of this book focused on other people, often feeling a little mean-spirited and overly-snarky.
She saves the best for last, and the last essay is where Notaro truly shines, and I wish she would write more essays like this one. It is called “Rewinding,” and chronicles the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of the most dangerous kind of brain tumor, a glioblastoma. There is no snark or cynicism in this essay, but an accurate portrayal of finding hope and molecules of humor in a devastating situation. Her humor is tamped down and it feels a little like survival. This is the Notaro I remember. Life stories with humor interspersed in them, not stories of hobos or lists of things you don’t want to hear in a drugstore line that aren’t really funny.
Notaro hits her stride with her last essay, and the tone and content of “Rewinding” is so different than the other essays that the reader wonders why the sudden switch of tone and subject? The previous essays try too hard to be funny, too hard to be darkly witty – when all the reader needs is Notaro as herself, in her element.
Jaime R. Herndon is an MFA degree candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Columbia University.