It’s Unhappy Hour in America, and we all need a drink. Samantha Irby’s new collection of essays, Wow, No Thank You, is a spicy cocktail that will intoxicate readers — a few fingers of Dorothy Parker and a splash of comedian Wanda Sykes, as bracing and delicious as a Cosmopolitan. The author of We Are Never Meeting in Real Life riffs on dating, not dating, eating, not eating, her Crohn’s disease and makeup routines, the pitfalls of the internet, and a tentative happiness in rural Michigan, where she now lives with her wife. Salud!
Irby casts her net widely. Her chapter titles reveal a mind in constant motion: “Girls Gone Mild,” “Lesbian Bed Death,” “Season 1, Episode 1.” Some of her funniest pieces delve into the peculiar niche of Gen Xers, insecure in their demographic trough between boomers and millennials: “Will anyone notice … that I messed up my eyeliner? … if I wear underwear that goes all the way up to my chin? … that this ill-fitting bralette is giving me quadra-boob?” Her technical choices are engaging, whether she’s compiling commentary on her perfect ‘90s mix tape (A Side includes Tori Amos and The Cranberries, while B Side features Ani DiFranco and PJ Harvey) or dispensing sex advice in potty-mouthed sentences that would make Dan Savage blush.
Beneath the irreverent humor is a more trenchant look at who we are: “There are two types of old people. There are (1) the silently awful who grind their rear molars into stumps … as some teenager tries to record them for their story and (2) the ‘put your phone away, young lady, and pretend to be interested in this New York Times article about charter schools I am misquoting’ awful.” If zingers were money, she’d be a zillionaire.
A self-described “egomaniac,” Irby successfully made the jump from blogging to books, and her pieces crackle with a conversational electricity, equal parts stand-up comedy and literary craft. If I’m not mistaken, I detect influences from Roxane Gay to George Carlin. She mocks herself even as she craves fame. When the “Very Famous” Abbi Jacobson, creator of Broad City, emails a fan note out of the blue, Irby blows it off, only circling back to Jacobson months later, contrite.
But there’s a tenderness beneath the attitude. Irby approaches personal experience with a keen clinical eye, fearlessly exposing herself in anecdotes ranging from her skittishness with children to her search for love “in the pre-swipe stone age,” with an occasional scatological aside thrown in. Her most poignant writing probes the dread and relief she feels on the cusp of middle age. She dizzies her reader but never disorients. More is more here.
Immersed in the sparkling flow of Irby’s prose, it’s almost possible to forget that there’s a pandemic on. Nurses and doctors are our new superheroes. Social distancing trumps late nights and hangovers. Irby offers a toast to frivolity and cultural investigation as a deadly microbe threatens our species. Wow, No Thank You — like Tiger King, Baby Yoda, and Lizzo’s performance on Saturday Night Live — is a pop-culture pleasure of the moment, suitable for tucking in a time capsule as the world hurtles into an uncertain future. Now was such a long time ago.
Hamilton Cain is the author of This Boy’s Faith: Notes from a Southern Baptist Upbringing and a frequent reviewer for O, the Oprah Magazine; the Minneapolis Star Tribune; and The Barnes & Noble Review. A native of Chattanooga, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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