No Place Like Home - A Memoir In 39 Apartments
Sick of seeing memoir become the soapbox of fame-seeking rehab grads, boasting about - and cashing in on - the habits (they claim) they kicked?
Along comes Brooke Berman to redeem the genre!
Berman’s No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments is written with expert ease, honesty, and openheartedness. In a marketplace rife with sensationalism and embellishment, Berman has introduced a piece about her first two decades as a struggling theater artist in New York that is as humble as it is heroic, as happy as it is heartbreaking and as subtle as it is grand. Where many writers would have used this epic as a repository for hip posturing, Berman lays hers simply on the page, making it all the more timeless.
She artfully opens No Place Like Home with a description of her mother, who appropriated an Uptown sophistication, from her lipstick to her Cosmopolitans, acting every bit the Gotham glamour-puss, even while scurrying to rustle up mortgage payments and a man in Detroit. Thing is, her mother had backed out on a Julliard piano scholarship in her youth - New York was too intimidating to her ingénue eyes - but made up for missed chances by putting on the dog in Detroit and later in the Chicago suburbs, where she married an Austrian Archduke, as exotic as (albeit much poorer and more wastrel than) Aristotle Onasis. The same Manhattan bug bit Brooke when she spent her Sweet Sixteen with her mother at the Regency Hotel, overlooking Central Park. There was no going back from there, though her subsequent series of downtown digs would never measure up to her catalytic weekend suite at the Regency.
But Berman’s story doesn’t segue from there into au courant I-lived-like-a-hooker-with-a-roach-problem braggadocio. Roaches, maybe. But the Award-winning playwright/memoirist boldly admits that she didn’t give up her virginity until age 26 (like Tennessee Williams). That’s a hell of a lot bolder an admission than you’ll ever get from today’s très cool ex-junkie writers. It’s not that she didn’t like boys; it’s just that work and survival always came first. Through most of her early years in New York, she didn’t even drink (and even when she’d later hit the bars, she didn’t slug ’em back). Instead, her whole focus was on navigating life as an unskilled Barnard dropout with a harebrained dream of being a self-sustaining artist in the world’s roughest city.
One of the worst parts of being a writer in New York (and this reviewer should know) is running into the bio of another writer whose resume is so much better than yours. One could easily resent someone of Berman’s caliber, except that she shows in spades that her career as a prize-winning dramatist developed in fits and starts as she couch-surfed, temped, sub-letted, got fired numerous times, and slaved over go-nowhere drafts that ultimately won her full-scale productions and residencies galore. One might envy her acclaim, but not all the hand-to-mouthing and impermanence she had to face to get it.
39 apartments is an excruciating number when you read how much life went into each place and how much Berman harbored the hope that she could call one of those places home. Alas, like in a Greek tragedy, the rug would be ripped out from under each of her leases and subleases, and Brooke would have to hit the road again, often while between gigs, not knowing how she’d be able to afford the next place. Somehow, the Universe always provided.
This deserves a word on New Age philosophy, another area in which Berman is conspicuously brave. She doesn’t shy away from mentioning that she’d visited psychics and read books from channeled entities, Marianne Williamson, A Course in Miracles - stuff most of us would cram under our mattresses - in order to facilitate the fulfillment of her unmarked path. It’s not that these things have no merit. It’s just that they’re easily mocked in a culture of chic cynicism. While far from gullible after decades on the edge, Berman doesn’t claim that these crackpot touchstones are the alpha-and-omega of truth, but that they were sources of comfort and guidance in a maze of overwhelming uncertainty.
What is the alpha-and-omega of Berman’s book - if not her first four decades of life - however, is her mother Marilyn, whose desperation and suffering couldn’t have been more poignant behind her got-it-all-together mask. Though Berman doesn’t come right out and say it, it’s obvious that she’d slugged out the hard-knocks, New York life that Marilyn had spent her whole life wishing she’d had. Not that Berman makes herself out to be Ms. Fabulousa; it’s just that she has an uncanny capacity to struggle to her feet after every knockdown. Yet Marilyn’s visions of grandeur only live on through her daughter and, almost with a vengeance, Marilyn phones Brooke about how her end is near due to multiple ailments that someone with New Age sensibilities might attribute to broken dreams.
No Place Like Home is not written in an effort to dissuade anyone from the artist’s way.
Rather, it comes from a place where dreams are hard-won and unutterable persistence pays off.
And just like Raymond Carver’s best work, the stories pack their punches without any overstatement.