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Kids these days

Anne Lamott takes on the challenges of modern parenting

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Imperfect Birds” by Anne Lamott
Smith Galtney

If you were a teenager in the ’80s, it’s almost impossible to read Anne Lamott’s seventh novel, Imperfect Birds, without flashing back to a certain anti-drug PSA that MTV once aired constantly—the one where the father held up a stash o’ weed and asked his son, “Who taught you how to do this stuff!?!” The son mulled it over for, oh, a millisecond and shouted, “You, all right? I learned it by watching you!” Then the father hung his head in shame, just as a Voice-over of Reason intoned, “Parents who use drugs have kids who use drugs.”

Such a sweet and innocent time, the “Just Say No” era, when moms and dads might’ve chewed a tab or two back in the ’60s or snorted some tootsky before the local disco closed. Nowadays they substitute Ambien for warm milk, ADHD meds for coffee and antidepressants for fresh air and exercise, while weighing the pros and cons of giving their children pharmaceutical amphetamine.

“There are so many evils that pull on our children,” begins Imperfect Birds, before itemizing how many Bay Area teens die annually from car crashes and suicides, or land in psych wards and jail. But yesteryear’s cut-and-dried predators—strangers with candy, ball-playing drug pushers, masked murderers—have evolved into devious little shape-shifters, and soon Lamott summons the ultimate parental nightmare: The evils are tugging from inside the house!

The Details

"Imperfect Birds"
by Anne Lamott, Riverhead, $26
Three stars

The novel’s main character, Elizabeth, certainly acts like the last remaining female in a slasher flick. As a widow, she’s painfully aware of how instantly loved ones can disappear. As a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who recently relapsed, she’s well acquainted with recreational poisons and their never-fading charm. And as the mother of a 17-year-old, she’s the most paranoid parent on the West Coast, especially after the sun goes down: “Sometimes she would doze, but was up every forty-five minutes with a new bad dream: Rosie dead or dying, in all of her nightmares’ greatest hits—car crashes, leukemia …”

Elizabeth terrorizes herself less during daylight hours, thanks to 12-step meetings and touchy-feely vegan friends who listen, assure and advise over brown rice. Rosie’s an exemplary teen in many ways—a physics whiz who earns pocket cash by giving tennis lessons and working with kids at a Bible-study day camp. During heart-to-hearts with Elizabeth, Rosie even admitted she wasn’t a virgin and had tried cocaine “a few times.”

What Rosie hasn’t told her mother is that she and her friends pop Adderall to kick-start the night, which might find them scoring E, or swiping Valium from an aunt’s medicine cabinet before tripping on acid at a beach party. Having had sex three times, Rosie longs to have it with someone she loves: “She wanted it to be romantic and meaningful, so you could cuddle, instead of just having to get it over with or get back to the cocaine.”

Obviously past the “experimenting” phase, Rosie tokes on a joint at an outlaw party, unaware that it’s laced with angel dust or something like it, and gets too fried to haul ass when the cops arrive. Once Elizabeth receives that late-night call she’s long been dreading, a typical drug-drama unfolds, albeit one that impressively avoids the preachy, TV-movie melodrama of nearly all teen drug tales.

During last month’s avalanche of good-to-great press for Imperfect Birds, it’s kind of remarkable that only The Washington Post copped to feeling “defensive” about liking it. Lamott’s a memoirist, after all, and memoirists seem to wear out their welcome after two or three personal accounts. Yet Lamott’s been at it for 30 years, having spun her life into five nonfiction titles and seven fictionalized autobiographies, three of which feature Elizabeth and Rosie, recurring characters who mirror Lamott’s own experience with parenthood and sobriety. Shouldn’t all that self-chronicling have turned her into yesteryear’s self-help guru du jour?

Unlike David Sedaris, who’s sunk too deep in a pool of quirk, and Augusten Burroughs, who’s become quite the media sideshow, Lamott built a career on memoirs that feel utterly selfless, featuring characters like Elizabeth and Rosie, who are spoiled and bratty and rather annoying, yet likeable and entirely relatable characters. How can someone yammer on for so long about their own damn life and never lose our attention, much less our respect? By telling us what we want to hear. Or making it sound like she’s actually talking about us. Or just by making us laugh. Or all of the above.

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