It’s always nice when a book arrives which isn’t at all my usual kind of thing, and it blows me away. Michael Greenberg’s book Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life sounded like my cup of tea – I have his memoir of his daughter’s mental illness, Hurry Down Sunshine, as yet unread. I thought Beg, Borrow, Steal might be about writer’s block, the publishing process, amusing anecdotes of book signings, seeing your book on the shelf for the first time… well, for the last few chapters it was. But before that there are nearly 40 chapters of an aspiring author talking about nearly everything except writing.
I say chapters. These were all previously columns in the Times Literary Supplement, between 2003 and 2009. And Greenberg writes about everything and anything – this is a writer’s life in one sense: all of his experiences are ignited by a desire to gather stories, create a viewpoint on the world – or rather, New York City. He has had almost every imaginable job – he’s sold fake make-up kits under a bridge; interpreted Spanish in a law court; driven a taxi until he was car-jacked; been a hopeless waiter; even played the stock market. Seemingly able to blend into any scenario, he writes of each with disarming simplicity, always engaging, however unpalatable the topic might be in the abstract.
His life in New York is as a struggling dreamer – one familiar with, and even fond of, the darker, grimier, desperate side of the city. Whereas I get anxious walking down a dim footpath in Oxford. Despite being so different from my usual choice of domestic literature of the interwar years, I was utterly captivated, and it never felt that Greenberg was bragging about his urban experiences – simply documenting them with a writer’s eye. And occasionally this was jolted against his experiences as a father – spending his first two weeks alone with his young son, for example.
Along the way, he garners some writing experience. He never mentions having the TLS column in the columns, but recalls his times keeping a log of his subway journeys; writing for unsuccessful films; being told by an editor that “This manuscript represents everything I hate in fiction.” An example of this book’s humour is seen when Greenberg writes the voiceover for a television programme about golf in America. ‘”Golf. Simple. Majestic. Timeless,” I begin.’
I complete the script and send it off to Zebra. A week later he ‘phones. An executive at the network has complimented my “intimate feeling for the game.” Would I be available to play a round with him at the Westchester Country Club next Thursday? I confess to Zebra that I have never played golf, except for a few holes of miniature golf on Kings Highway in Brooklyn when I was a boy.
“We’ll tell him you’re sick,” says Zebra without skipping a beat. “Something highly contagious.”
Who’d have thought that a book with topics so disparate as beheading chickens, waiting in the dark to see owls, and recording a Talking Book, could make such addictive, coherent reading. All is linked by Greenberg’s distinctive, but unobtrusive, voice.
Sadly for UK readers, this book won’t be published here (by Bloomsbury) until early 2010 – but it is out from Other Press in the US next week. See it here, on their website. The fact that Greenberg’s style and viewpoint are so different from my usual fare makes it easier for me to recognise a writer of great, but unassuming, talent. His clarity, honesty, and simple style reminded me of Homage to Catalonia, and I think it is possible that Greenberg is, stylistically, as quietly brilliant as George Orwell.