Small, yet perfectly formed: Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life by Michael Greenberg

March 20, 2010 | No Comments

I’d like to be able to hire Michael Greenberg’s son to supply my plot lines. In the essay, “Cold Turkey,” the boy’s copious gifts at make-believe are on display. You’ve mistaken your son for a pirate, the boy says to his father, then “you kill him. Then you find out he’s your son. You’re very sad. But he comes alive again.” Apart from examining the delicate relationship between a father and son, “Cold Turkey” celebrates a child’s ability to cut to the narrative chase, a skill that Greenberg, too, has in spades. He’d be darned handy to have around when one is required to write a sharp essay of less than 15oo words, and I hope he’s a teacher. His book, Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life (2009) contains 44 such essays (all originally published in Greenberg’s column at the Times Literary Supplement), and though described as a memoir, its style is more fragmented than typical, and Greenberg is more interested in others than in himself. It is memoir in the way that some essays of Joan Didion or Annie Dillard are ‘memoir.’

Some selections are, naturally, stronger, (“The Final Word,” for example, is an odd inclusion. It illustrates the dangerous consequences of memoir in relation to a book Greenberg wrote about his daughter, yet never tackles the thorny issue at the very heart of the form; why we writers have the right to write about others at all), but the best are excellent.

My personal favorites are “Zebra” and “Brotherly Love.” “Zebra” ruminates with humor on the discomfiting role of the writer-for-hire. “I’ve grown suspicious of my ability to manufacture sincerity, to write with apparent conviction about that in which I have no real interest,” Greenberg confesses while struggling to produce a jaunty history of golf on a measly budget and with stock visuals. “Brotherly Love,” the book’s opening piece (and its strongest), nails in a mere four pages or so, the relationship between Greenberg and his father and brothers. His father “couldn’t bear the idea that any of his children might surpass him,” and was utterly contemptuous of Greenberg’s bookishness. “Which do you think is worth more,” his father, a scrap metal dealer, asked, “a commodity or an idea?
With this collection, Greenberg has proven his father wrong, but I suspect he has too much empathy for human nature to derive much satisfaction from that.