Susan Jane Gilman,
Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress
(Warner, 2005)

What kind of life does a child of Jewish hippies have, growing up in pre-gentry and Guiliani New York? What troubles does she face as a white girl in the Upper West Side of the '70s, an area with "rubble-strewn lots and highly interactive junkie population" and an uneasy racial divide? What happens when she wanders into the '90s, a feminist fresh from college whose first job is for a conservative newspaper known for its recipes? What kind of book explores these tensions? If you've guessed a sensitive, searing, wrenching tome, a book-club lister with high-flown language and a patina of pain, you are wrong. Susan Jane Gilman chronicles the trials and tribulations of growing up an outsider in a world of outsiders with grace, insight and above all, honest, gripping, awe-inspiring, gut-shaking hilarity.

Gilman has already drawn comparisons to Dave Sedaris, so I will say up front that even rabid fans (like myself) of Sedaris's martini style of dry humor mixed with a splash of tenderness will find much to love in Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress. But Gilman has a voice of her own: her style is more folksy, less artistic, more the words of an ordinary person with reluctant extraordinary tendencies -- and her work is the better for it. Every girl who ever wore sarongs and read Cosmo, every boy who read Marx and loved Nascar will recognize the uncomfortable choices behind Gilman's every story. And they will instantly recognize the lesson she clearly learned long ago: when you don't fit your life, you might as well laugh about it.

And laugh you will. Out loud. In the middle of the night, bleary-eyed from six straight hours of compulsive reading. From home movies at a hippie summer commune to a transcendental meditation Christmas party (complete with a Maharishi who looks like "a lawn troll in drag") to a feminist crisis-of-faith over a Victorian wedding dress of gargantuan proportions, Gilman maps the life of the Flower Child's children. And, like the inevitable flow of maturation, her tone shifts in the book as she moves along her time-line, from nostalgic parody during her childhood in the free-love era to a reflective balancing when she reaches the give-and-takes of an adult idealist out in the real world.

But no matter what she's talking about, Gilman knows how to take the sting out of rejection, the bitters out of reality; she knows how to separate the wheat from the chaff, the gold from the dross. Because she knows how to use laughter for its highest purposes: the alleviation of suffering and the making of meaning. And once you finish reading her fantastic essay collection, you will, too.

- Rambles
written by Tracie Vida
published 5 February 2005

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