Thursday, September 29, 2016

Cool, Calm, and Contentious by Merrill Markoe

Sometimes, one thing you do for a while professionally defines you for the rest of your life, whether you want it to or not. Speaking as a former book-club editor, I've got a small idea of what that can be like...though nobody actually cares about that chapter of my life at this point. (Even me, most days.)

Merrill Markoe, on the other hand, can never get away: she was the head writer for a number of years for Late Night with David Letterman (the NBC show, in the great, early days) and was also Letterman's girlfriend for most of that time. She did great work, but it was behind-the-scenes work for someone who was famous then and only got more and more famous in the years afterward. She's done good work since then -- screenplays and essays and other stuff -- but she's a writer, and writers are never as flashy or visible as performers. So that one label -- Letterman's girlfriend -- has hung on her ever since.

At the center of her 2012 essay collection Cool, Calm and Contentious is a great, thought-provoking essay called "Bobby," written in the second person, questioning "your" affair long ago with a celebrity who has since been caught up in a tawdry, unpleasant sex scandal. It's brilliantly illuminating while at the same time not shining light directly on Merrill Markoe the person and her real life. And it's only one of a number of deep, thoughtful, and often very funny essays in that book.

I'll admit; I primarily know Markoe from those days. I had a copy of Late Night with David Letterman: The Book (which I bought, and can still recall clearly, on a campus visit to Columbia my senior year of high school, almost like it would be a ticket to a big-city media world that I never was able to travel on) and haven't kept as close track of her work since then. Media thrives on target audiences, and Markoe's targets were usually not me: her books have been varied, but most of them have been "hey! I've got a lot of rambunctious dogs!" essays and novels.

But a strong writer is always better than anyone's mental image of her genre, and even Markoe's essays here about dogs are worth reading. (I guess.) There's a lot of family stuff -- like many funny people, Markoe grew up with a toxic mother -- and the usual stuff about relationships that people with a lot of failed relationships write. (The only ones with a lot of relationship experience are the ones with lots of them, so they're either looking back at a history of failure or multiple spousal murder -- and I tend to think neither of those perspectives leads to good advice, though the former does lead to good comedy a lot of the time.)

So, if you're like me, this is a note to say that Markoe is worth reading, even if (also like me) you're not so into the whole dog thing. Also, if you had a vaguely wrong impression (and I'm not admitting that I did) she's not Nora Ephron -- Ephron is the one who writes books about her neck and obsesses about being a woman getting older. Markoe is much cooler with aging, and tends not to dwell on it.

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