March 11, 2010

Book review: "The Big Rewind," by Nathan Rabin

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

The Big Rewind, by Nathan Rabin

The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture
By Nathan Rabin
Scribner

It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of The Onion's arts and culture publication, The AV Club (or at least I used to be, until mean-spirited "Hater" posts seemingly took over the majority of daily content there); and in particular I'm a slobbering devotee of their smart and funny head entertainment writer, Nathan Rabin, whose remarkable "My Year of Flops" essay series was the direct inspiration for my own "CCLaP 100" series on literary classics. So I was overjoyed to learn that Rabin had recently written a full-length book away from his AV Club duties -- a memoir, in fact, that purports to tell the story of why he finds pop culture so interesting to begin with, and how his love for cheesy movies and gangsta rap led him to the high-profile career he now has. But whoa, then I actually read it, and realized the fascinating truth about Rabin, that he comes from a background so dysfunctional as to make Augusten Burroughs look like one of the Von Trapp kids; and that when he glibly mentions that "pop culture saved my life," he means that as a literal statement of fact, with it frankly being a minor miracle that he's actually a functioning member of society at all, instead of some junkie living in a dumpster behind a Taco Bell, much less the respected journalist and cultural essayist that he is.

And in fact for the vast majority of its 350 pages, The Big Rewind is one unending, cringe-inducing nightmare, the tale of a spindly little Jewish nerd who's had the deck stacked against him nearly from birth -- the child of two '70s radicals who both eventually burned out but in vastly different ways, by puberty Rabin had already been institutionalized against his will, sent to and rejected by a foster family in the tony North Shore of the Chicago suburbs, and eventually consigned to a sort of halfway house for kids with behavioral problems in the dangerous Rogers Park neighborhood. And yes, as you can expect, Rabin uses these situations to relate a whole series of nightmarish anecdotes, a litany of horrors sure to be appreciated by any fan of Running With Scissors; but unlike Burroughs, Rabin uses these opportunities to deliver a lot of laugh-out-loud humor as well (typical line -- "I cannot stress this enough: do not take powerful hallucinogens before going to a Holocaust memorial"), and unbelievably enough mostly tries to stay light-hearted and optimistic when relaying all these past traumas. (Or, well, that's not the only difference between Burroughs and Rabin; unlike the former, for example, Rabin is actually a decent writer, and also doesn't feel the compulsion to just make up stupid sh-t whenever the narrative gets a little slow.)

Eventually, of course, Rabin ends up at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where in typical fashion he falls in with a houseful of smelly hippies and hot undergraduate girlfriends who practice a lopsided form of polyamory (i.e. she gets to attend swinger conventions and be a "sacred prostitute," while he stays at home and smokes a lot of dope); and I say "of course" because Madison is where The Onion was originally founded, which for many years existed as not much more than a xeroxed zine handed out at record stores, and that didn't become the international cultural touchstone it now is until the rise of the Dot Com era in the 1990s. And I have to guiltily admit, there's something truly joyful about seeing someone with a dream job plainly confess that he considers it a dream job too; and I also have to admit, it's legitimately heartwarming to see Rabin confess near the end of the book that The Onion pretty much saved his life, and was what finally let him turn into the responsible, prolific adult he now is.

Now, let's also admit that the book has its problems, ones that were mostly minor for me but that will bother others a lot more; just for starters, his actual writing style can get awfully immature at a lot of points, and it's obvious as well that he still has some issues to work out regarding his sexual orientation, given the uncomfortable frequency in which he obsesses over people who mistake him for gay, a semi-homophobic aspect of this book that I found a real turn-off. (And dear Lord, if you're the kind of person who chafes at the sight of random quotes from old Simpsons episodes, you need to avoid this book like the freaking plague.) All in all, though, I found The Big Rewind to be a very pleasant surprise, given that Rabin could've so easily just put together a compilation of his best AV Club material instead, and made a ton more money without any of the dirty laundry. It's a gutsy book, a riveting one at points, and it comes recommended to anyone who enjoys a brisk, witty read.

Out of 10: 8.6

Read even more about The Big Rewind: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:39 PM, March 11, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |