To be clear, the Sam Harris, author of the essay collection Ham: Slices of Life, is not Sam Harris the prolific author and critic of religion whose online presence overshadows every Sam Harris on the planet. “I have the greatest respect for him, there are a lot worse people to be confused with, and we share a publisher. But it's a little tricky because I was born first and I was famous first,” jokes the Harris who wrote Ham. He’s long since owned the theatrics of italics, of being the Sam Harris. Surrendering any spotlight is not in his nature.
Ham, Harris’ debut collection, warrants the limelight. These 16 stories are witty, colorful and hilarious insights into a performer who survived growing up gay in the Bible Belt and opening for Aretha Franklin.
Harris has been in the public eye for more than 30 years. His credits include multi-platinum recording artist, director, producer, songwriter and film, television and Broadway actor. The book’s success relies on a facility with details that he attributes to his work as a performer. Effectively playing a role or performing a song necessitates channeling specific emotions. If the song is about a breakup, “I don’t focus on, ‘oh someone left me, it's too large,’ ” says Harris. “I focus on finding their sock after the relationship is over. For me, it's the details that recall the emotional experience and the funny.”
In his essay “Odd Man In,” the specifics involve toilet paper stuffed in his ears and a dishtowel tied around his eyes. “I thudded into furniture and knocked over lamps,” he writes. “I stumbled to the smallish avocado-green Formica kitchen table.” The essay reveals an unconventional child’s inclination towards theater—musical and otherwise. At five years old, Harris was committed to securing the role of Helen Keller. He was crestfallen when, despite hours of rehearsing, he didn’t get the part.
Harris was catapulted into fame in 1983, as the first winner of Star Search, a pre-cursor to The Voice and American Idol. Nearly overnight, the earnest 22-two-year-old from Sand Springs, Oklahoma was mingling with celebrities such as Stevie Wonder, Lucile Ball, Bette Midler, Michael Jackson and Liza Minnelli, his best friend. He doesn’t shy away from celebrity references; but he doesn’t dish. The names dropped read more as observation, circumstance, personal revelation by association.
In “Promises,” Harris provides a first-hand account of Minnelli’s wedding to David Gest. Vividly pictured are sycophants, comical flamboyance and the social hierarchy of invites and seating arrangements. An addled Elizabeth Taylor can’t open the ring box. Throughout the wedding Michael Jackson “would titter to himself at an internal joke, showing his teeth, just a shade less white than his face, and raise his shoulders like a five year old girl who’d just said the word penis for the first time.”
Harris is not revealing the comic-tragedy that was Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor towards the ends of their lives. (His depiction of them is, however, exceptionally comical.) He’s not shedding light on an infamously disastrous wedding. “I don’t think anybody is going to say, ‘Oh my God we never knew,’ ” says Harris. “It was just a bad situation and what I observed. In the book I write about [growing up] wanting to find my tribe and then here I am sitting in the middle of the dream tribe, or in the middle of show business at its extreme, and it’s just as crazy and dysfunctional as my biological family,” he laughs. “So that's what it was for me, a, ‘Well, here's what you wished for…’ ”
In “Holy Shit,” Harris recounts the days when he was still searching for belonging. Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Barbara Streisand inspired an interest in Judaism. “My affinity reached an entirely new level when I was eight years old and Teresa Fisher’s father gave me his paperback copy of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I’d found a tribe, and related and attached myself to the Jewish plight of oppression, adopting it as my own.” The absence of a temple in Sand Springs was problematic, so Harris looked for belonging at his town’s Broadway Baptist Church. “The very name, ‘Broadway Baptist,’ had an air of show business.” This, too, didn’t stick, though the baptism itself was worthy of a Tony.
Ham is a wealth of entertaining stories within stories. Harris writes about his relationship with his decidedly heterosexual father and about Harris’ relationship with his five-year-old son. “There are personality issues that make me fear he will one day drink Coors from a can,” Harris writes.
There are gems of anecdotes, analogies and one-liners throughout the book. Harris admits to an overwhelming kind of anticipation building up to Ham’s release. “I’ve been getting reviewed all my life, but this feels different. It’s more personal. I toiled over it in a different way than I do a song or a concert. I toiled over every comma. I asked for extra spaces between sentences, because I wanted a psychological breath.” (He was denied the request.) The expectation and unknowns animate Harris, who, rather than embark on a traditional book tour, will tour what he calls his literusical, a crafted theatrical piece that shares a title with the book. It is a performance that features excerpts interspersed with songs. It will highlight the various talents of the Sam Harris. He will be celebrating the launch the only way he knows how: “By working it baby, by working it.”
Tobin Levy is a writer living in Austin, TX.