A frank memoir of money and the man.
Culture critic Siegel (Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence, 2015, etc.) incisively explores his modest New Jersey upbringing, exposing more deeply the personal history he shared in a June 2015 New York Times op-ed piece, in which he confessed to defaulting on his student loans. Reaching back to his pre-college struggles, the author recounts the bleak tale of his youth, growing up a budding intellectual drawn to writing amid a dysfunctional domestic scene. Siegel’s graceful opening description of the full moon shining like an “incandescent coin” subtly introduces the central role money played in the cataclysmic decline of the relationship between his failed jazz pianist father and unstable, “aspiring actress” mother, whom the author sees as driven together and, finally, apart by their “mutual vulnerability.” The title refers to the arrangement his father made with the real estate firm who employed him as an agent, whereby he was advanced a weekly salary against future commissions with the understanding it would be paid back. However, the more he “depended on the Draw to live, the more it shrank his life”—to the point that, when sales didn’t materialize, he eventually amassed a huge debt, which led to his firing, divorce, and having to declare bankruptcy while Siegel was in college. Thrust into ever more dire financial circumstances by his father and psychologically tortured by his mother, who “seemed to live for bitter emotional combat with everyone around her,” the author repeatedly endured humiliation in an attempt to support himself and get an education. Beautifully portraying his resulting masochistic “dedication to suffering” as akin to a “Buddhist monk on fire,” Siegel doesn’t hold back in baring his emotional scars. Though filled with moving introspection and insight, especially into the intangible ravages of poverty, the book may leave some readers wanting: if not for forgiveness or acceptance of the parental inadequacies he admirably bested, then at least the balm of forgetting.
An unsparing, intimate reflection on the many ways money—or the lack thereof—can tear a family apart.