Tama Janowitz is a favourite of mine. Not someone I'd rush out to buy but if I see her on a shelf in a second hand bookshop then the book's likely to be going home with me. I love her titles in particular - there's "The Male Cross-dresser Support Group" and "A Cannibal in Manhattan" which are both favourites of mine so even though I don't really like books of essays, the strength of the Janowitz promise was enough to draw me to this book. And the good thing about a book of essays is that hopefully nobody can accuse me of giving away too much of the 'plot' because there obviously isn't one.
'Area Code 212?' I hear you ask 'what's that about?' Maybe I should be ashamed of myself for knowing without even thinking about it that 212 is the New York telephone area code. I really couldn't tell you how I know that, I just do. And appropriately enough, this book is both a collection of essays on living in New York and a bizarre and sometimes irreverent homage to one of the world's most famous cities. Subtitled 'New York Days, New York Nights', the book is a collection of nearly 80 essays and articles written by Janowitz over a period of many years and published in a wide variety of different magazines and newspapers from Vogue to Modern Ferret. She even includes a speech she gave to a University graduation that made very little sense to anyone, herself included. The editing is sometimes a bit haphazard and a couple of the stories repeat themselves in slightly different ways - such as her account of going to China to adopt her daughter or the hobo on the street who accused her of having a 'bad hair life' rather than a bad hair day.
The articles range from the surreal (miscarrying in the toilets of the Museum of Modern Art whilst those around her thought she'd slashed her wrists in one of the cubicles) through to the ridiculous (her desperate attempts to illegally acquire a ferret - apparently outlawed in New York) to the shocking (watching the Twin Towers collapse from her rooftop).
Janowitz is funny, clever and a great writer. Essayists too often spend too much time trying to show how clever they are rather than focusing on the topic. She doesn't bother poncing around showing off - it's real 'warts and all' honesty. She even tells us about testing as a 'retard' on an IQ test. When you read her you feel like she's one of your best friends telling you about some bizarre little thing that happened that day - she's immensely approachable and then just when she's got you thinking she's a real Miss Ordinary she'll floor you with an account of being an extra in a ZZ Top video or, most amazingly, hanging out with Andy Warhol and being a core member of his 'Blind Date Club'. As the saying goes 'There's one thing the Queen Mother and I both hate, and that's a name-dropper' but in Janowitz's case you don't get the nauseous feeling of 'here we go again, look at all the great people she hangs out with' because in one breath she's writing affectionately about one of art's most well-known characters and the next she's off getting her face on the cover of Ferret Weekly or some such rodent publication or questioning the very existence and purpose of buffets.
Janowitz is just so blissfully ordinary - and that's what I love about her. She could be your sister, your best friend, the girl you admired in the year above you at school but she's actually lauded as one of the most significant contemporary US writers, spoken of in the same breath as the likes of Jay McInerney and the generally-rather-nasty Bret Easton Ellis and part of a now ageing Brat Pack. She's a 'big time' literary name living a very small-time every-day life. OK, there are rather a lot of gala dinners (hence her hatred of buffets) but there's little glamour in her domestic arrangements. Let's face it, the lady married an Englishman and she likes snappy little hairless dogs - now that's not glamorous, is it?
Janowitz loves her city, loves her family, loves her small ratty dogs and bizarre ferrets, but mostly I get the sense that she loves life. When we read about her miscarriage there's no 'poor me' sentimentality - she's just recounting the embarrassing situation in which she found herself. She doesn't paint herself as some kind of saint and admits that her first few days with her Chinese daughter she hadn't a clue what she was doing and was ready to give her back. Living in New York she goes from hip Manhattanite to slightly-scared-to-walk-in-the-park Brooklynite because it's the only way she can get a place for her family that's bigger than a broom cupboard.
These essays are like a giant box of chocolates (if you'll forgive the Forrest Gumpism). You could sit down and scoff the lot in one go or dip in and out as the fancy takes you and eke them out as precious little treats. There are a couple of the nasty soft-centres or Turkish delight that you might not want to palm off on granny who's having problems with her 'plate' but most of these chocs are ones you'll want to savour and enjoy. As an 80p bargain in a charity shop, this was one for which I'd happily have paid full price.
Area Code 212 - New York Days, New York Nights
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Price - £5.69 for a new one on Amazon, 2nd hand from a penny
Also posted on www.curiousbookfans.co.uk
I was walking down the street and a homeless person on the corner yelled to me, 'Hey, honey - you having a bad hair day?' Welcome to the wonderful world of Tama Janowitz, New York's wittiest and deader than deadpan social scene chronicler. Littered with idiosyncratic delights and oddities, here are hilarious stories of her eighties blind date club with Andy Warhol; her brief moment of celebrity as an elderly teenage extra in a ZZ Top video; and testing as mentally retarded on an IQ test. Janowitz gives us her unique low-down on hairless dogs and ferrets, babies and Brooklyn, big hair and bad hair days - and survival tips for real life girls. Self-deprecating, funny and often touching, Area Code 212 is a sparkling and deeply amusing collection.