Back in 1976, a seven-year-old boy named Jon-Jon Goulian wrote himself a postcard. He gave his postman strict instructions to arrange for the letter to be delivered 30 years later, to his grandfather's summer home in Vermont. As it happens, grown-up Jon-Jon was in Vermont the day his directive was carried out, and received a message from his pint-sized self.
Young Jon-Jon mostly wanted to know whether Older Jon-Jon had blossomed into a pro soccer player. He didn't think to ask whether his future self would disappoint his parents, reshape his body with multiple nose jobs and countless hours at the gym, or wear skirts and lip gloss every day. In his very funny but frustratingly shallow memoir, The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt, Goulian tries to explain to himself — and to us — just what happened.
Goulian describes his memoir as "a deep and painful stab at self-analysis," but that's misleading. An inveterate partygoer on the Manhattan literary scene, Goulian writes with a chatty, engaging voice that's more suitable for bons mots than for soul-searching. And a lot of those mots are really bons; he's particularly funny when describing a childhood diet of non-fat, dry-curd cottage cheese and textured vegetable protein. Once a year, Goulian got to eat bacon, which he aptly describes as "almost too delicious to take seriously."
Goulian offers plenty of possible explanations for how he became the person he is: a distant mother, two successful older brothers, even a teenage inguinal hernia that left him cripplingly shy about his body. But he seems to lack the ability — or perhaps just the interest — to do the most important job of a memoirist: to create empathy, to help the reader feel what it's like to be the person he is.
In part, that's because Goulian never achieves the delicacy of tone that might suggest a sense of perspective. Goulian's despair for his confused younger self is, at times, touching. Elsewhere, the hysteria with which he details his neuroses seems more befitting the callow lost boy he's describing than the 40-year-old telling the story. Take the blinkered section in which he explains why, as a college sophomore, he moved to a dorm at Barnard, Columbia's sister school, and goes a bit off the rails:
Just as a Jew in Italy during World War II would have gladly sought refuge in the Vatican, not because he was a Catholic but because he didn't want to be carted off to Auschwitz by the Germans, so did I seek refuge at Barnard for no reason other than to hide.
In the end, what's most vivid about The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt isn't the outrageous shell Goulian has donned as a kind of armor against the world. Instead, it's the realization that the storytelling David Sedaris, for example, so expertly carries off — the tempering of brutal honesty (or at least the illusion of it) with perspective and laughter — is not at all effortless. It's hard work that requires follow-through.
As Goulian makes clear throughout his book, he isn't much for follow-through. A proud dilettante, he attended law school and clerked for a judge, then skipped the bar. He worked as Robert Silvers' assistant at the New York Review of Books, only to leave, he says, when Silvers reminded him too much of his father.
He describes himself, during one of many fallow periods, as waiting "for something magical to happen." And, in a twist that doesn't make it into these pages, something magical did happen: He was paid a reported $700,000 to write this very book. You won't begrudge Goulian that advance; in fact, you'll almost certainly enjoy The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt, especially if you treat it less like a memoir and more like a collection of well-honed cocktail-party stories from the guest around whom everyone naturally gathers. Like party chatter, Goulian's book is daring but not revealing, sparkling with wit but never quite believable. He may be a real character, but he's not a real character. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.