07.29.09 6:29 AM ET
Girl Gone Mild
The last few years have been good for girls-gone-wild confessionals. Koren Zailckas chronicled her fall-down-drunk years in the bestselling Smashed. Kerry Cohen vividly described the STDs she contracted from men she didn't particularly like in Loose Girl. And if the profiles in Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pig are any indication, the woman next door is seriously considering having a stripper pole installed in her pantry. Carlene Bauer's precisely observed debut defiantly announces that she was Not That Kind of Girl. She confesses instead to going mild, and her droll account of the wages of being good is well worth the extended examination she gives it in this surprisingly provocative memoir.
Anyone who doubts that highly educated urbanites can be as narrow-minded and provincial as the residents of Our Town should read Bauer’s accounts of explaining her virginity to shocked, uncomprehending partygoers.
You see, Bauer was a young evangelical Christian with a taste for Sylvia Plath. She had a run-of-the-mill fundamentalist education, her parents were capable, she excelled in school. Had she been content to stay in her hometown along the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border, she presumably could have scratched her creative itches with a booth at the local craft fair. Her story would be interesting but unremarkable.
But Bauer ups the ante, and as she narrates her misfit high-school and college years, her singular vision becomes clear: She aspires not only to be truly hip, she also wants to be taken seriously in New York's snobbish literary scene. And she seeks to accomplish both of these goals while hanging on to her fervent faith in Jesus Christ. If life maneuvers received scores for technical difficulty, Bauer would be competing for gold.
That a contemporary America besotted by culture war has trouble categorizing such focus-group-unfriendly people is no revelation. Perhaps leery of accusations that she can't claim authentic membership in either camp, Bauer stocks her pilgrim's progress with exhaustive details establishing her cultural bona fides. She sees Plath as "a godless version of Ecclesiastes' Preacher." Bauer can't stomach the "effeminate earnestness" and touchy-feely casualness of the contemporary Middle American worship services, and so imagines a Jesus more like Ted Hughes—she'd prefer a divinity who'd rip your headband off and demand your attention—or the one conjured in The Replacements' song "Can't Hardly Wait." ("Jesus rides beside me / He never buys any smokes.") In other moods, Bauer decides Jesus had a lot in common with Hamlet, albeit less conflicted about his relationship with his dad.
But if Not That Kind of Girl were only concerned about asserting that it's possible to have experienced both Bible class and CBGB's—and to not feel the need to apologize for either—the end result would be far less nourishing than it proves to be. As Bauer moves herself and the PG-13 action to New York's publishing world, her trained eye finds more demanding subjects, and the book widens to become a meditation on staying true to who you are when it's far from established that who you are does you any worldly good.
"Neither class anxiety nor Christianity were considered real, or fashionable, torments," she says of her faltering attempts at the professional cocktail banter required in the media industry. "We had to depend on the kindness of strangers phoning other strangers on our behalf," she says of her cohort of twentysomething Lost Girls who had plunked themselves down in New York with no money and no connections, their few possessions stuffed in milk crates on bare floors. "And strangers had been kind." But when they weren't, Bauer continues, it seemed the floorboards might give way, her talent unnoticed and mourned by no one.
Her experiences as a scared young thing in the city cast the limitations of her religious upbringing in sharp relief. She condemns evangelicals for their fixation on small-time sins—she notes approvingly Binx Bolling's maxim that you transgress in order to know you're a proper human—while nonetheless succumbing to the larger sins of cheap sentiment and smug self-indulgence. But the secular world Bauer's chosen to live in doesn't escape her lacerating criticism either. (Anyone who doubts that highly educated urbanites can be as narrow-minded and provincial as the residents of Our Town should read Bauer's accounts of explaining her virginity to shocked, uncomprehending partygoers.) Genuine moral seriousness, she suggests, is hard to find.
Bauer doesn't confine her Dorothy Parker tartness to sketching out other people's shortcomings, repeatedly flagellating herself for her awkwardness, her cowardice, her inability to corral her intense feelings in etiquette-prescribed fashions—"my envy and curdled pride striking out like a lizard's tongue in the middle of an otherwise agreeable conversation." She dabbles in Catholicism, she drinks just enough to take the edge off. A series of bookish, bespectacled young men are waltzed on and off the page.
It's not giving too much away to note that Bauer eventually arrives at a coherent worldview she can live with. The book itself, of course, is proof positive that the strangers came around. Bauer's sentences achieve a confident, aphoristic stride as she relieves herself of the twin burdens of self-doubt and received wisdom. "Only those women with money can violate the laws of probability," Elizabeth Hardwick writes in Sleepless Nights. Bauer's satisfaction in beating the odds is evident, well deserved, and beautifully rendered.
Megan Hustad is the author of How to Be Useful. She has written for The New York Times, Salon, Slate, and American Public Media's Marketplace.