A New Yorker staff writer struggles to strike a prepossessing pose in a populous family photograph.
Fully aware that his is a complicated story, Friend (Lost in Mongolia: Travels in Hollywood and Other Foreign Lands, 2001), provides a two-page family tree that rivals the Tudors’ in complexity. The chart is a reader’s dear friend, though, for it helps clarify quick allusions to “Timmie Robinson” and numerous others who occasionally pop up in the thick narrative, which interweaves accounts of his relatives’ lives with ruminations on his childhood, schooling, lovers, career, travel, marriage, parenthood, privilege and psychotherapy. Friend often felt unloved and unloving, he writes, adding that he expended most of a $160,000 inheritance on 13 years of psychotherapy. He illuminates that period a bit in “Reconstruction,” a chapter that also features accounts of his mother’s obsessive remodeling of a house. We learn that Friend was an award-winning high-school student and a Harvard graduate who took home “a raft of prizes” at commencement. His father was president of Swarthmore College, his mother an aspiring poet and youthful rival of Sylvia Plath. The author bounced from girlfriend to girlfriend before finding his true love and current wife. Friend knows he’s enjoyed some breaks in life—family summer homes in desirable places, notable relatives, money worries rather than poverty—and he’s suitably ambivalent about it, waxing ironic and sometimes even waspish about the WASPy world of his nativity. He deals effectively with his mother’s terminal struggles with cancer and with his father’s emotional reserve. He tells us little about his writing—mostly that other people think it’s wonderful—but notes his initial difficulty at the New Yorker crafting “long pieces that fit together like jigsaw puzzles.”
Indeed, Friend’s memoir is mostly in pieces that could use further assemblage.