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March 12, 2008 |

By Daniel Carlson | Books | March 12, 2008 |

It would be wrong to say I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up Things I’ve Learned From Women Who’ve Dumped Me. Aside from bearing a happily blunt title, the essay collection was edited by Ben Karlin, whose credits include The Onion and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” and features an introduction by Nick Hornby, the godfather of the man-child-discovers-himself genre. Those two names alone are enough to guarantee a work that’s committed to self-revelation even as it mocks the effort it takes to get there, and the book doesn’t disappoint. But in addition to the undeniable charm evoked by most of the essays, the book succeeds by offering both a surprising variety on its theme and by presenting work from comedians who can actually write comedy. It’s impossible to underestimate the importance and difficulty of that last part; many books by comedians are nothing more than a literal transcription of parts of their act, and what works in a monologue in front of an audience tends to lie dead and lifeless on the page. But the comedians and writers on display here craft short stories with insight, skill, and a mix of hope and longing that would make Hornby proud.

The book opens with a cutesy foreword from Karlin’s mother called “I Think My Son Is a Catch,” but it’s Hornby’s introduction that sets the proper tone. He writes of the two things that seem to drive most men — confusion and persistence — and how you just keep going until, one day, things just finally work out. “Effectively we become the DVD of Elf that you ignore in the rental store at nine o’clock on a Friday night, on the presumption that there will be something better (or at least, something more fulfilling, more complex, and that you haven’t seen twice before) on the shelves somewhere. And guess what you end up going home with?” The book is not a treatise on relationships or a manual on how to fix them, and it never tries to be. It’s just a collection of short — like 5-8 pages a piece — essays about what it was like when the men in question were younger, dumber, and not quite able to see what was happening right in front of them.

The first few essays keep right on track with the motif of youthful betrayal, particularly Will Forte’s “Beware of Math Tutors Who Ride Motorcycles,” a piece about losing a college girlfriend to a guy with a bike who started out getting math help from Forte’s girlfriend and wound up stealing her away. Forte’s humor never misses, but what really sells the essay is the vibe of comic inevitability as Forte looks back on the mistakes he made as a younger man. It’s more wistful than bitter, and it prevents the book from becoming a lopsided rant and helps it maintain a quicker pace and lighter air.

But it’s only after the first few pieces establish the tone that the book is free to happily wander away, as with Stephen Colbert’s recounting of a former flame with most of the pertinent info “redacted” by his wife, often leaving nothing but entire paragraphs blacked out. Neal Pollack’s piece is about the death of his cat, which seemingly blows off the book’s premise altogether even as it winds up reinforcing it — namely, that you never know just how it will happen, but loving someone or something will always carry the risk of pain. In the same way, “Daily Show” writer/correspondent Larry Wilmore contributes “Women Are Never Too Young To Mess With Your Head,” which is all about his fears as a parent and his inability to get his newborn daughter to love him. She cries in his arms, never seems happy, and generally resists every effort he makes to bond with her. It’s an entertaining piece precisely because it’s completely unexpected.

Of course, it’s the more typical essays that make the book what it is, and each one is enjoyable and easily digested, moving from infatuation to failure to reluctant wisdom in just a couple thousand words. Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne turns in a perfect two-pager, an annotated version of his song “Baby I’ve Changed” that offers both self-aware riffs on his profession (” ‘Baby’ is a term of endearment used often in popular song”) to jokes with a bit more honesty about Schlesinger’s own mixed-up relationships (“The song’s crafty protagonist hints that ‘home’ for his departed lover is the place they shared, and not, in fact, her sister’s couch in Westfield, N.J.”). The book’s ironic success is that it distills into short bursts the lessons and musings it took these men years to finally understand, as with A.J. Jacobs realization that the dirty girl he had befriended and who gushed to him about her sex life would never, in fact, sleep with him. It seems so obvious on the surface, but Jacobs and the rest are fantastic at summoning the air of blind optimism and plain ignorance that runs through the blood of men in their 20s.

There are many wonderful and funny and sad and poignant little essays among the 31 collected in the book, from Tom McCarthy’s “Don’t Leave Too Much Room for the Holy Spirit,” an Apatowian tale of love gone wrong at a Young Life summer camp, to Patton Oswalt’s “Dating a Stripper Is a Recipe for Perspective,” the truth of which cannot be maligned. But the book’s heart and soul comes shining through in Rodney Rothman’s “I Still Like Jessica.” At 25 pages, Rothman’s piece is the longest in the collection, and it’s just the dialogue of a phone call he made to Jessica, his first girlfriend, whom he dated for all of two weeks when he was 13. Like most men now in their late 20s and early 30s, Rothman is deeply obsessed with the handful of women who have made him the semi-wreck he is today, and his phone call with Jessica isn’t just a lark but a way to exorcise the devils of his childhood and let her know that she’s the one he will in many ways never get over. He asks if she remembers their kiss, and when she initially denies it, he replies: “I have probably thought of [the kiss] fifty thousand times. I was going to say fifty times so that I would not seem weird, but in reality probably somewhere between fifty and fifty thousand.” The course of their conversation runs through their post-college lives and where they want to go, and Rothman eventually steers the topic back to their infrequent time together a few years prior and the fact that they should reconnect. He eventually wins her over and stops the tape before anything more can happen, and in a moment right out of, well, Hornby, the frustrated boy manages to finally win.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

She's Just Not That Into Me

Things I've Learned From Women Who've Dumped Me, ed. Ben Karlin / Daniel Carlson

Books | March 12, 2008 |

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