City Paper is not for tourists
D.C. writer Eric Nuzum had a miserable adolescence. Stagnating in a lousy T.J. Maxx job, he spent his spare time fuzzed out on beer, pot, and pills. A girl in a blue dress, sopping wet and spouting gibberish, stalked his dreams. He was prone to rages and sometimes suicidal. Wandering this dark forest of anguish, he found solace in two things: the company of his friend Laura and Brian Eno’s ambient album Music for Airports. Laura made for better conversation. “I wouldn’t be hanging around with you if I thought you had a clue about normal,” she tells him—thrilling words for a depressed, self-declared “tsunami of dork.”
We learn early in Giving Up the Ghost, Nuzum’s unsettling (and somewhat unsettled) memoir, that Laura died young, and the book reflects his two-decade effort to come to terms with that tragedy. Interspersed between scenes of his ’80s teenage collapse are reports from grown-up road trips to allegedly haunted places in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and his native Ohio. Nuzum dismisses the legends as superstition, mocking the “Ghost Meter” he acquires to suss out spirits: “According to the Ghost Meter, the radio in my dining room and my KitchenAid mixer either are haunted or produce a significant amount of electromagnetic output,” he writes. But he can’t quite shake off that girl in the blue dress—or the lack of closure following Laura’s death.
Haunting isn’t the same thing as grieving. One’s an inexplicable spiritual phenomenon (or just utter horseshit), while the other is a common human emotion. But Nuzum is determined to connect the two, taking a prybar to the word “haunted” to extract a universe of meanings. “Haunted by a disconnection from the world around me,” he writes. “Haunted by a festering depression. Haunted by loneliness.” Even so, when Nuzum is briefly institutionalized, we’re well away from “haunted” and deep into the real-world business of his official diagnosis: schizotypal personality disorder. By Nuzum’s reckoning, Laura did as much good during that period as the doctors did, though he remained baffled by her behavior. (The subtitle’s “scrap of paper” contains a cryptic poem she scribbled for him.)
The book’s split between memoir and reportage is a little ungainly, yet each half needs the other. Without Laura and the girl in the blue dress, what’s left is a set of travel pieces that lacks a bookish heft. Without the travel pieces, it’s a fairly conventional recovery memoir—Dork, Interrupted. If anything’s connecting the two, it’s the force and humor of Nuzum’s prose. A scene where his college DJ stint turns disastrous captures both the absurdity and despair of his predicament, and a recollection of tweenage dreams of playing piano with Kiss artfully presages the weirdness to come. (“I would drop a little ‘Für Elise’ into the middle of ‘Hotter Than Hell’ and blow people’s minds.”) Covering the road or the past, the book is proof that Nuzum has climbed out of his worst emotional places with his wit intact (he’s now NPR’s vice president for programming): “My new, fresh life really wasn’t that different from my old one,” he writes, “minus the substance abuse and dead children following me around.” —Mark Athitakis