Toby Young

As noted by Maud and others, Toby Young is guesting at Slate this week. But apparently, some folks are pissed. I wasn’t aware that a seedy memoir had this much staying power. In 2002, I took a look at the book for Central Booking (now defunct) and I reproduce the review here:

There was a time when memoirs involved deliberation. Whether it was Frank McCourt recalling his impoverished childhood or Caroline Knapp probing a conquered alcoholic wraith, memoirs hit the stacks without the obligatory run-in with a celebrity or boastful chapters of self-affirmation. But when Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius became the dog-eared darling on every slacker’s bookshelf, the rules changed. Everyone from Dave Pelzer to Rick Moody published memoirs well before experiencing a midlife crisis, much less the beginnings of a hoary head. Remarkably, these thirtysomething memoirists never offered a single excuse for why their tomes were so premature. They didn’t need to. They were more than happy to receive lucrative advances, even if it wasn’t intended to pay for any terminal illness.

Enter Toby Young, the bad-boy British journalist who has no problem trashing himself and former employer, Condé Nast in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (Da Capo Press, 368 pp., $24.00). Young’s tell-all book carries the moniker “A Memoir,” but it has about as much in common with Eggers’ much-loved book as guano has with chocolate mousse. Same color, different texture.

Young, “a short, balding, Philip Seymour Hoffman look-a-like,” didn’t coax Judd Winick into a Might Magazine photo shoot. He interviewed Nathan Lane, first asking if he was Jewish and then asking if he was gay, before being led away by jittery publicists. Young didn’t watch his mother and father die within 32 days or have a younger brother to care for. But he did let a girl freeze outside of his apartment. He was supposed to pick up her cab fare. She didn’t have the cash. Why? He was too busy sleeping off a nose candy binge. Young didn’t audition for The Real World. He dated supermodels with little success and hired a company for $750 to have a focus group rate him on his dating “marketability.”

Young’s shit stinks, but, unlike other memoirs that hide behind self-important WASP flummery, his memoir pulls no punches. The book became an unexpected bestseller in Britain partly because of its pugnacious approach. And it translates well here. One of the book’s virtues is its determination to relay the first-person account of a scoundrel. The memoir mixes assessments on America (Tocqueville is unfurled as a repeated, but surprisingly unsuccessful qualifier) with Young’s problematic life. While coming up short in the insight department, it does make for some funny observations.

Young jetted out to Manhattan on the dime of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, portrayed here as an avuncular snob. Young was a hotshot Oxford man and Fulbright scholar who had made a name in the Fleet Street skids with The Modern Review, a highbrow look at lowbrow culture that featured early work from such contributors as Will Self and Nick Hornby. On his first day of work at Vanity Fair, Carter’s secretary told the Brit that staff dressed “real causal.” He showed up in vintage Levis and a Keanu Reeves T-shirt with the tagline “Young, Dumb and Full of Come.” Months into the gig, Young hired a stripper to bare all on Take Your Daughters to Work Day.

Before the reader can condemn Young as an exhibitionistic blowhard, Young manages to explain his motivations early enough to qualify some of his apocryphal tales. He has a passionate view of the Algonquin American journalist, “somewhere between a whore and a bartender,” lovingly lifted from the plays and films written by Ben Hecht. He bemoans political correctness and “clipboard Nazis.” He finds Condé Nast’s treatment of messengers and freelancers deplorable. And he remains awestruck over how easy it is for Brits like Tina Brown to embrace Manhattan superficiality.

But Young’s sentiments don’t empower him to find a bit of self-abnegation himself. Ultimately fired by Vanity Fair, Young turns to drink and cocaine. Young can proselytize John Belushi-antics all he wants, but his sentiments are undermined by the despicable treatment he ekes out to loved ones and peers. And there’s something troubling about a book so astute about American journalism’s inability to take chances while hypocritical in its generalizations of Americans.

Young’s book doesn’t add too much promise for the self-absorbed memoir, but it does steer the genre down an appropriately balls-out path. It’s refreshing to read a life story that is both unapologetic and frequently funny. But it’s too bad that Young’s tome is cut from the same attention-seeking cloth as its brethren.

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