“When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished,” goes the maxim by Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. Okay, but what happens when a family is born finished? Like the Octomom or the Kardashians? On the other hand, there are certain families who, when a writer appears in their midst, couldn’t give a damn–they’re all too busy finishing themselves.
That’s often the case with the Mulgrews, a blue-collar family from South Philly, whose exploits, indignities and implosions are chronicled by the eldest son, Jason Mulgrew, author of the memoirs, Everything Is Wrong with Me: A Memoir of an American Childhood Gone, Well, Wrong, and most recently, 236 Pounds of Class Vice-President: A Memoir of Teenage Insecurity, Obesity, and Virginity. As indicated by his titles, Mulgrew is the first to admit his own foibles, and of all his family members, Mulgrew is the one who bears the heaviest brunt of his own criticism.
Whether he’s being bribed (with a dog) by his mother to make it to the Pennsylvania State Spelling Bee, eschewing potential high school football stardom for a bowel movement, failing a driver’s test (twice) or engaging in some of the most awkward father-son time since Luke and Darth went in for family bonding under the chassis of a TIE fighter, 236 Pounds of Class Vice-President brings into focus a more evolved Mulgrew. Or at least, an older one.
And, when I spoke on the phone with Mulgrew, he was in the midst of another family crisis, this one only half his fault.
“My wife is expecting our first child in three days,” he says, his voice reminiscent of all almost-parents: Traumatized, tired and scared out of their gourds. “And we’re both sick, so I’ve been trying to generate ideas for a third book, but right now, my plate is full. It’s overwhelming. I don’t know what to do.”
Reading 236 Pounds of Class Vice-President, one fears that Mulgrew, a man who wore a fur cape through high school and whose life’s motto is: “If at first you don’t succeed, immediately give up and focus on stuff you already know you’re good at,” is going to crack.
Mulgrew, at one point in 236 Pounds of Class Vice-President, attributes a trip to the bathroom during a school assembly as “one of the defining moments of my life,” and as our conversation progresses, it becomes clear that he may have had an existential reprise in this particular department: “At 1:30 in the morning yesterday, I just sat down on the toilet and enjoyed the experience. I felt a profound sense of peace—it was almost Zen.” He may still crack, but with Mulgrew, there is always a hint of sentimentality to accompany the schadenfreude. For readers looking for Greek, italicized pathos, Mulgrew offers a caveat: “Sorry, but [236 Pounds of Class Vice-President] is not that kind of memoir.”
Mulgrew explains that while his best-selling Everything Is Wrong with Me, which is more focused on his childhood and family lore, seemed like the right book to work on after the success of the blog he started in 2004 (also called Everything Is Wrong With Me), his latest offering, 236 Pounds of Class Vice-President, was “the book I really wanted to write all along. It’s much closer to me, emotionally and chronologically,” says Mulgrew.
“People responded to the photos I posted of myself and my family on the blog,” Mulgrew explains. “I took the pictures and arranged them in a kind of chronological order. From there, my agent and I were able to select the best stories, find a good direction and pull the book together.”
Even if it weren’t for the photos, Mulgrew laughs, “I couldn’t get away from these stories if I wanted to. In Philly, in my family, we’re just a ball-busting culture. Me, my friends and my family, we’re all so accustomed to the stories. I just write them down.”
When asked if, like James Joyce, Mulgrew found that “imagination is memory,” the 33-year-old Mulgrew pauses. It is the pause one encounters when bringing up the subject of James Joyce around Irish Catholics. Then, I hear that sustained gurgle, followed by a sigh. “I think that’s probably something Joyce said to pick up women,” he says, “but I can understand the sentiment. In my case, memory would have to serve as imagination. I’m just lucky that I’ve had such an interesting upbringing, because I have no imagination, whatsoever.”
Tyler Stoddard Smith’s writing has been featured in UTNE Reader, McSweeney’s, Esquire, The Best American Fantasy, The Beautiful Anthology and The Morning News, among others. He is also an associate editor of the online humor site, The Big Jewel. His first book, Whore Stories: A Revealing History of the World’s Oldest Profession, was published in 2012.