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Turns out Natalia Rachel Singer is an old friend of mine.
I haven’t seen her in ages, but the moment I spotted her name on the cover it brought back the ’80s—the era she’s writing about, her formative years and mine. And, I guess, a cataclysmic time for the country—at least to hear her tell it. Scraping By in the Big Eighties is a treasure trove of memories from the Reagan era—from quite an earnest, reliable narrator.
Where did we become buddies? Well, that’s lost in a hashish haze. Was it when we were slumming in the tent towns of Mexico, she with her hunky boyfriend-of-the-year? Or in Seattle, where we chopped potatoes at the worker-owned cafe collective—spending our pennies at the Town Tavern, sipping beers with honest-to-God blue-collar workers? (Much more real than college!) We protested that Cold War–era behemoth U.S.S. Ohio when it was due to dock in Port Townsend.
Did we connect at that New York writers’ conference? Who knows? What I do recall: When I first met her, she was this green, disaffected Jewish undergrad at Northwestern—this skinny, homely girl with big brown hair, above-average breasts (her rating), and a persistent plea for the causes of minorities and underdogs in her dank Cleveland twang. Later she became a seasoned, well-traveled grad assistant in Northampton, a post-hippie agitator, exhorting the undergrads to re-examine the 1986 UMass brawl—on the night the Red Sox shanked Game 6 against the Mets—as a “race riot.”
Somewhere along the way, we became friends. She always said that one day she’d become a hipster prof at some groovy liberal-arts college. That’s exactly what happened: She’s tenure-track in St. Lawrence University’s English department. Just like she said! She also said she wanted to document the ’80s as seen through her own life, writ loopy and large. And—just like she said!—she’s a published author. Her book even made this series of “American Lives” memoirs collected by Tobias Wolff. (You know, the writer with the memoir that became a DeNiro film.)
Well, I scraped together $24.95 to buy my old friend’s book. Verdict? The chick can write, for damn sure. She uses different formats: regular old prose, letters to friends, postcards, lots of quotes and epigrams from Buddhist monks and literary critics. It’s retro fun—but it’s researched and serious. I mean, I don’t remember half of the stuff that she does. It’s as if her life were this seminar devoted to the ’80s. Doubtless she was taking notes.
Tons of notes, actually. For a 200-page book, Scraping By in the Big Eighties is pretty dense and complicated. She tries telling several stories at once. One is the outline of her life, of course: After college, she tries to live a sort of anti-bourgeois ideal as one of a floating commune of “able-bodied lazies living off big government.” She’s flipping the bird at the Reagan administration, which she sees as “plotting revenge” against the underclass and marginalized with its trickle-down economics and reductions in social programs.
She also writes lots about lots of other people. But there’s something peculiar about everyone she meets. They’re almost all like her: middle- and upper-class white folks with the power and mobility to play-act as poor people. I mean, who helps her muster the gumption to make the Oregon pilgrimage to meet the “Rolls Royce guru” of noncelibacy, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh? A tall, blond, “dreamy-looking” boyfriend named Morten, whose Norwegian industrialist dad has floated him a $1,000-per-month trust fund. That’s not the attraction, though—it’s his sexiness and utter lack of work ethic.
Another story is her artistic development—what we called a Kunstlerroman in college. She begins with a determination “to write and publish the most important bildungsroman of the late twentieth century.” To do so, she figures, she needs discipline, the “very boot camp and monastic” life she imagines an artist requires. She needs to define herself as a sort of productive noncomformist, someone who “question[s] the path of achievement” by becoming spiritual and expressive. Is this really a need? Well, when her brilliant, classically trained musician friend Bill drops his calling to “serve…one master” at a Buddhist monastery, Singer proclaims it “an act of sanity.” Her own artistic evolution, she concedes, takes some effort, noting how she’s “trying to become a free spirit.”
Seems paradoxical to me, though. Seems like she buys into some of the beliefs of the corporate class that hires her after college. See, she’s able to fuel her dropout lifestyle and literary ambitions by signing up with one of America’s first HMOs. There she is, starting the ’80s at a “professional job with great benefits during a year of double-digit inflation and unemployment, a year when many young people with BAs were washing dishes.” Well, how else are you going to write, if not by experiencing as much of life as you can? And how are you gonna help the underclass, if not by surpassing them first? It’s only after this brief corporate stint, then, that she’s able to go off the grid.
Come to think of it, Singer does an awful lot of bracing herself for her life as a free spirit. In the early ’80s, when she first leaves the States to hop down to Mexico, she “play[s] tourist” with her boyfriend for a month. After which they lose out on a “pseudo-rustic rental” to “people who had the same idea, except that they could afford [them].” I guess it takes a while to get ready to think and act like the low-income vagrant Singer aspires to be. I mean, after all, when she starts wanting to go west to Seattle, she talks about Pike
Place Market, Pioneer Square, hip coffeehouses—atmospheric settings “[you] could work…into your novel.”
Then there are other storylines. Singer explores her spiritual path: Secular Judaism is her religious heritage, but it never inspires her much. She writes about a brief childhood conversion to fundamentalist Christianity (copycatting her neighbor at summer camp!) and her later fascination with Buddhist monasteries and meditation retreats. Especially with all the New Agey Buddhist stuff, she seems to have found peace. When she goes to Mexico, the only Spanish she knows is “‘I am…I have…I want…I need.’” But what you might think of as rather poetic ignorance is really, she explains, a folksy “Zen virtue.”
My favorite storyline, though, is her hang-up about family. Her dad left the home when she was little—headed south of the border to become a painter and writer. When times were lean, he “caught iguanas and rattlesnakes in the wild and roasted them over an open fire.” How pioneer, how anti-materialistic! In her fantasies, Singer and her dad meet by chance in Tijuana, where they dialogue on political “act[s] of resistance” and “feminism.” (In reality, he turns out to be entirely absent, a no-goodnik bum, dead since the Carter administration.) I think Singer kinda hates him and kinda loves him—wants to be like him, just without the heavy drinking.
What Singer really gets stoked about, though, is her mother—this toothless, schizoid, one-woman wrecking crew in a trench coat. In 1987, when Singer’s conscience gets to her after an abortion, she hides it from her mother. But her mother is there anyway, right by her side, on an unwanted visit, mortifying her while bra-shopping. You can’t blame Singer for complaining—the crazy woman hikes her own shirt up to show the saleswoman what brand she wants for her daughter!
The mom has a violent streak, too. She tries to stab Singer’s demented grandmother between stays in a mental hospital. And she tries to kill Singer’s sister—with a broken-off bottle, like in the movies. She even tries to choke Singer to death. Poor, fucked-up ingrate—her daughters are only trying to get her committed, get her the help she needs.
Well, Singer realizes how people like her mother have slipped through the cracks of Reagan’s America, a country waging welfare war against nutjobs. She realizes that her mother’s the victim—but when her own life is at stake, she comes to see that the best thing to do is wash her hands of the matter and not feel too bad about it.
The government, y’know, requires that families fund the court-appointed guardians who ensure the safety of knife-wielding psychopaths and their targets. By the late ’80s, the Singer sisters can’t afford to care for their mother at a distance. And when the old lady somehow snags a lawyer and wins her competency hearing, she threatens to move in with Singer. This won’t do. Singer and her sister make a pre-emptive strike, beelining back to Cleveland. That’s where the mother goes after the sister’s gullet. “I love her, but I want her to get help, and I can’t help her myself,” Singer sighs as policemen drag the mother away.
That whole scenario—lower-class victims of Reagan-era policies—is how all the storylines tie together. Singer tends to start every episode with the crazy notion that she and her family and her vagabond friends and hangers-on can beat the system. In every instance, she comes out the other end older, wiser, pragmatic. But not jaded. She’s still idealistic.
And she still believes it’s impossible to tell her personal story without knitting it into the social fabric of others. She has to tell everything in the context of history. Even the exploding Challenger gives her ammo, to shoot down Reagan’s Star Wars defense plans. And it’s also the backdrop for her 1986 decision to attend a Seattle writer’s conference: Her letter of recommendation calls on her to “reach for the stars.”
Singer is trying to capture an era, but I don’t think she does it the right way. The personal is political and all that, but if you’re going to examine a country’s times, do you really need to recount the minutiae of your own life? And if you’re going to write about your own life, and it’s as interesting as Singer’s, shouldn’t that be enough?CP