Sunday, January 09, 2011

Lost Lustre by Josh Karlen (2010)

I received a copy of Josh Karlen's collection of biographical essays, Lost Lustre: A New York Memoir (2010), as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Despite some flaws, and a rough beginning, I ended up liking this one.

Karlen was born in 1964 and grew up split between his father's place in the bohemian, intellectual, and relatively well-off Village, and his mother's place in a new housing development right in the middle of Alphabet City, a poor, drug-filled, crime-ridden neighborhood that wouldn't really be gentrified for another twenty years. He went to an arts-focused public high school, flunked out, drank a lot, did some drugs, went to lots of punk clubs, graduated from an alternative high school, worked some crappy jobs, briefly visited the Amazon, and then was accepted to a college program in Wisconsin. He eventually went on to work as a journalist and then a lawyer, get married and move back to the city, and make some time for some serious reflection on his childhood, adolescence, and the nature of memory itself.

Karlen is at his best when he describes the experiences, people, and places of his youth. Sometimes his descriptions can get a little out of control, but for the most part his narrative is evocative and intriguing. Where he falters is when he gives into his overwhelming desire for self reflection and philosophizing on the nature of his life, the passing of time, and the act of remembering (particularly in the first essay, "My Sixties," which made me think I wasn't going to like the rest of the book at all). Of course any memoir springs from a need for self-reflection, but the best ones walk the balance between sharing experiences and ideas that reflect the human experience and devolving into "me me me me me me me."

The essays in this memoir seem to have been written for different purposes and collected later under one title, and there is some repetition of details between pieces which leads to a choppy flow for the book. On the plus side, this means that each essay can pretty much stand on its own, including the title piece, the longest and most developed part of the book, which describes Karlan's relationship with his boyhood friend who grew into a charming front man for a band and a horrible alcoholic who ended up dying when he was 29. Karlan loses touch with his friend and doesn't find out that he died until 14 years have passed, at which time he looks up all their old friends and tries to reconstruct the magic of their friendship and the downhill slide that Karlan missed while he was living his life and assuming that his friend was doing fine.

Having never even been to New York, I'm not sure how Karlan's descriptions and experiences compare to other city-dwellers, but for the most part I found them interesting and this would be a fun and quick read if you are a big fan of memoirs, self-reflection, or New York City.

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