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By Samantha Irby
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
This book of essays piqued my interest because it's written by a Chicagoan--and not just any Chicagoan, but one who resides in the part of Rogers Park that realtors like to call "Loyola Park." Which means Samantha Irby likely binge-watches Breaking Bad only a couple city blocks from where I binge-watch Breaking Bad. It's always fascinating to read about an author trying to "mask the sound of stress diarrhea in a tiny nail shop bathroom" when there's a chance you might run into her on the street.
But there's more to Meaty than just diarrhea. There's toe-sucking. There's "day-three-heavy-flow-bleeding-like-a-stuck-pig" period sex. There's what seems like an atypical amount of butt sex (and there can't be butt sex, at least in this book, without the mention of poop). There's copious amounts of profanity on every page. AND WHEN IRBY WANTS TO MAKE HER POINT SHE DOES IT IN ALL CAPS. She wants to make her point often. Which means A LOT OF CAPS. Which is fine. Irby writes a popular blog, and her writing is fast-paced and infectious. I would compare her style to Lindsay Hunter--short words arranged into run-on sentences, with an almost Kerouacian stream-of-consciousness feel, but with a focus on shock instead of beauty. The many facets of Irby's character--the not-so-young young person who can't balance her checkbook, the poor black girl who grew up in the rich white suburbs, the young urbanite trying to navigate the sexual mores of the early twenty-first century, the daughter of parents who died when she was still in her teens, the perpetually sick Crohn's sufferer--make Meaty an entertaining and memorable read. Irby is also a very funny writer. Though her methods aren't subtle, and this book is aimed pretty squarely at an audience that isn't me, I found myself chuckling out loud every page or so. I can only read so many lines about dying "alone, in giant panties that come up to my chin, with crumbs under my tits, and a half eaten cat face" before just giving in and laughing. You have to hand it to Samantha Irby. She's persistent. Her experience as a stage performer comes through on the page. She knows how to win her audience over.
But there's still more. Meaty was published last month by Curbside Splendor publishing here in Chicago. This is the first book by Curbside that I have purchased or read, but I have to say that as an object the book is impressive, with a slicker, more professionally produced feel than what I'm accustomed to seeing from small presses. And, notably, Meaty is about to be featured as a holiday selection in the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Authors program. I don't follow B&N Discover very closely, but this has to be the first time a publisher this tiny--Curbside looks to have published ten or so original books as well as several anthologies thus far in its short life--has landed a book on that list. The idea that such a thing is possible is big news, or ought to be. We've all heard about the seismic shift happening in publishing right now, from big to small, from New York outward. Or at least I've heard about it. Again, and again, and again. But I've never once listened or cared. I've always thought that in a best-case-scenario, small-scale indie publishing and large-scale New York publishing will continue to exist in separate spheres, but that the more likely scenario is that there will be overlap when New York reaches into the indie world to rob it of its most promising (i.e., most lucrative) talent whenever it becomes aware of some success. Which has happened recently with some YA authors of genre fiction, and may yet happen with Samantha Irby. But Meaty landing on the B&N Discover list feels bigger than that to me, because what New York publishing relies on in order to keep reaching over into the indie world and plucking the best talent out whenever it wants to is prestige. And one example of prestige is a place on that list. So when a tiny publisher from Chicago gets a spot that Knopf wishes it had, that means something. It takes that much prestige away from Knopf and gives it to Curbside. If this prestige gap continues to close, then certain writers might be less inclined to put up with the less appealing parts of the New York publishing experience (i.e., agents who are perpetually on Safari in Africa, publishers that put money ahead of art every single time) and start looking elsewhere. At least that's what this news made me think.
But back to the book. Perhaps more than anything, what I enjoyed about Meaty is seeing my little corner of Chicago through the eyes of someone who is so distinctly not me. This book isn't perfect--it loses focus pretty badly somewhere between the cringe-worthy television pitch and the recipe section that features such gems as "Beef Taco Casserole, WHAT"--but it's frank, funny, entertaining and well worth the read.
Out of 10: 9