The language in Michael Greenberg’s new memoir, Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life, startles with the beauty of verse and the throb of a violent, tempestuous city. Greenberg’s words, though, form the only true unifying thread for this loosely fitted biography.
The book patches together what appear to have been columns about life in New York City. Each chapter introduces eccentric characters from the city, including quite a few members of the author’s family. We meet several wildly different people, including a fixer with a mail-order law degree; a master chef practicing his art in a soup kitchen; an ex-patriot Chilean filmmaker; and Greenberg’s own father, who was a a middle-class, immigrant scrap-metal tycoon.
Greenberg tries to weave his encounters into a common story about his struggles to become and support himself as a writer. But many of the stories and characters fit into the fabric of Greenberg’s life only because he wrote about them, not because they offer any insight into his life or art. In the end, the most compelling stories are the personal ones, as they are more emotionally raw and more relevant to his writing.
A Writer’s Life is an appropriate title for such a personal account, as it signals that this is just one man’s path to the art, and not necessarily a path that should be followed by others. Indeed, Greenberg consistently turns his nose up at any endeavor save writing and regularly lashes out at anyone who would suggest something different. The result is a life spent just above the poverty line, and often alienated from loved ones.
For a writer, the language is the thing. Here, Greenberg is on track. The most consistent and pleasing element of his work is the words he strings together. So, while the book suffers from strained attempts to seam together stories, the language overshadows these shortcomings.
Bottom Line: A sometimes disjointed group of stories told in colorful and lively language.
Please visit Michael Greenberg’s website for more information.
Mac M., aka blackdogbooks on Librarything, lives in the American Southwest and works in law enforcement.