- Good in a Crisis
- Bloomsbury USA, 256 pp.
Mid-Life and Other Inconveniences
At one point during the disintegration of her twenty-year marriage, Margaret Overton’s serial-cheating husband demands that she return “his share” of her clothing and jewelry. Astonished by his brazenness, she says she doesn’t think that much of it would fit him. Yelling and cursing ensue, and thus unfolds another episode in the drama of a modern American divorce. “People going through a divorce inflict collateral damage,” writes Overton in her memoir, Good in a Crisis, a mostly humorous jaunt through the adventures of a crumbling life. “Think bombs, hand grenades, napalm in the morning. This is because we are crazy. I cannot stress this enough. We hurt others. We do crazy things. We can rationalize anything.” Overton never actually throws an explosive device (although she does impulse-buy a new couch), but her bitterness about life’s “chaos, disorder, and complete randomness” — not to mention narcissistic, power-hungry men — translates quite clearly, and the result, while not quite a treatise on compassion, is quite entertaining.
Despite the omnipresence of the divorce — we’re told it’s pretty nasty and very expensive — Good in a Crisis is actually more about the realities of aging. Overton’s narrative chronicles her encounters with the deaths of close friends, financial insolvency, the decline of an elderly mother, a serious accident involving her youngest daughter, and the diagnosis of a life-threatening brain aneurysm. She maintains levity throughout, riffing about receding gum lines, memory loss, and unwanted bulges and sags, but leaves no doubt that she is shaken by these tremblers. Coping (and healing) involves binges of crying, eating, drinking, wallowing, and commiserating with friends. She exercises, reads, goes on trips, and — because it’s what any newly single middle-aged woman on the verge of a breakdown would do — joins Match.com.
Her first post-split date is with someone from the hospital where she practices anesthesiology, an arrogant ENT surgeon whose “good looks and long eyelashes did nothing to compensate for his constant whining and needling of the nursing staff.” He catches wind of Overton’s split, talks her into meeting, and, over brunch, miraculously transforms into an absolute charmer full of stories, smiles, and laughter. She is thrown by the incongruence and saddened by the impurity of his motives, his ability to completely change personalities when he wanted something from her (she assumes it’s sex). “In retrospect, it is not how men think that escapes me,” she writes. “I have always understood how men think. I just couldn’t believe that I knew what I knew.” Despite this first post-marriage social experience, she carries forth with naïve optimism. Like she said: divorce makes people crazy.
A large portion of Good in a Crisis is devoted to reports on outings and relationships with dozens of men, all of whom, unfortunately, end up possessing some flaw that precludes genuine emotional intimacy. The writing in these sections, which comprise a fair amount of the book, is generally fresh and funny, but the laughs nearly always come at the men’s expense. Overton is quick to hone in on each man’s least-desirable trait, often recounting their awkwardness, career choices, hygiene, physical deformities, and frailty as personal affronts. In one case, when she is considering having sex with someone simply because he is attractive and she is horny, she claims to be “a nice person…who would never consciously do something like that.” Yet she does do exactly that, as well as label other dates “douche bag,” “Mr. Pathetic,” “Eeyore,” and “least appealing man in the solar system.” The effect is humorous, even if the writing comes off a bit snarky.
To her credit, Overton shares some responsibility for failed romances. “Here’s the thing,” she writes. “I was a disaster. I know that now. And yet I kept going out there, meeting man after man, trying to make everyone like me, using no judgment whatsoever, in the hope that someone would want me again.” Thank goodness for the retrospective narrator. Time and distance allow Overton to acknowledge her neediness, admit to “wallowing in self-pity,” and accept that her life at the time was permeated with the “hyperbolic meanness” in which she and her ex-husband were engaging. These glimpses of her humanity make her a more sympathetic character and help save Good in a Crisis from being too superficial.
Still, she is pretty hard on these guys, and since many of her bumbling and incompetent dates are ultimately harmless one can sense a deeper anger that isn’t completely congruent with her dating experiences. Eventually, however, we meet some of the more rude, manipulative — and, in one case, even criminal — men, and the eruption finally arrives, taking the form of a vitriolic passage about “every narcissistic monster” she’s ever known:
And hadn’t I only known such men? Didn’t the world teem with them? Banks, politics, Wall Street, maybe even parts of medicine—these fields ran on the blood of men devoted to their own self-interest. If they weren’t raping women, they were raping the less advantaged, the economy, the future, the environment. Self-interest for today, fuck everybody else and their tomorrows. What was it about me that had been drawn to these men repeatedly? They crawled all over our backs to get ahead, wreaking havoc, taking taking taking. I’d been on this merry-go-round ever since I could remember. I did not have a clue how to exit.
It’s caustic stuff, but by the time we reach this point, we understand a bit more about why she feels this way. Many men — in this book, and in the world — do abhorrent things, and while a compassionate exploration of the cultural forces and conditions that precipitate such behavior may be interesting, Overton is not responsible for such an investigation any more than she is for the actions of those who hurt her. Still, Good in a Crisis may have benefited from some deeper self-interrogation, a more thorough investigation of Overton’s tendency to become ensnared by the narcissistic forces she demonizes, particularly her inability to exit this “merry-go-round” of abuse. By withholding nearly all the details of her marriage, upbringing, and formative relationships with men (and women), she misses the opportunity for a more genuine self-realization and creates a void of understanding that tempts the reader to see all men in this light. This is disappointing on both fronts. There may be kind, compassionate, thoughtful men out there — one or two even exist in the book — but somehow they are not accessible to her. The question she really never asks is: Why?
The hallmarks of someone who is “good in a crisis” include clarity, determination, resourcefulness, and the ability to set aside personal needs for the greater good. By necessity, such hyper-focus is devoid of analysis and reflection; it is fully about “being in the moment.” A good memoir, however, cannot afford the luxury of staying completely in the now. It’s what the author does with the material of her life that creates the depth that drives the work. Despite the conspicuous absence of deeper reflection about the nature of her relationships to men, Overton does employ reflection successfully in other parts of her book. Her humor is a form of retrospective consideration, and she shares insights on human nature, particularly on how one’s views of heartbreak change with age and how people tend to dismiss other’s concerns when they can’t imagine enduring similar circumstances. She acknowledges her naïve tendency to “believe in the best in people,” and her despair over feeling abandoned by men because she hasn’t had plastic surgery is heartbreaking. She also takes on mortality, her reflections usually coming on bike trips —Italy, France, California — and while she doesn’t arrive at any startling conclusions about the meaning of life, she does acknowledge her own insight about mid-life really being about engaging the question of adaptation. “When the moment comes, and everything you depend upon changes…must disaster follow?” she writes. “Or will you — somehow — adapt?” It’s an apt question for all of us trying to survive in a world of constant change, where genuine happiness depends on our ability to let go, move on, and keep evolving.
In the end, Good in a Crisis is an entertaining and honest book peppered with humor, bitterness, and some genuine contemplation of the uncanny (often tragic) randomness of life. Overton’s divorce may have made her crazy, as well as temporarily stripped her of her scruples, self-preservation instincts, and assumptions about life’s guarantees, but she survived to tell the tale. I imagine a lot of people will be happy she did.
Chris Malcomb is an English and Creative Writing teacher living in Berkeley, CA. His work has appeared in over a dozen periodicals including the “San Francisco Chronicle Magazine,” “The Sun,” “Narrative,” “Common Ground,” “Red Clay Review,” and KQED Radio’s “Perspectives” series. His essay, “Broken Lines,” about teaching fiction to incarcerated men, was selected as a finalist for the 2006 Bechtel prize and published in “Teachers and Writers” magazine. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of San Francisco and is the founder of The Mindful Writer, through which he offers editing, literary coaching, and classes and workshops combining mindfulness and creative writing.