Bookstores are full of books by sit-com stars, laughter-and-tears memoirs and volumes of transcribed routines. Walk into any of the big chain stores and you'll see Brett Butler's wonderful memoir, "Knee Deep in Paradise," next to the books by Fran, Ellen, Jerry, Paul and Kelsey. If stores had the good taste and decency to separate books by sensibility, Butler would fit right next to writers like Lee Smith and William Price Fox, Southerners whose emotions go a mile deep and who remain tough and funny in very dark circumstances.
The meat of the book is Butler's story of growing up independent, feisty and, eventually, drunk as the daughter of a divorced (i.e., disgraced) woman in the South of the '60s and '70s. She relates how she came to know -- posthumously -- the father she saw for the last time when she was four, who, she discovered later, spent his life hiding out in a back room of his mother's house, drinking and reading. After his death, Butler received his unintended legacy to her: eight UPS boxes full of books, notebooks and magazines, nearly everything heavily annotated, finally spelling out a picture of the man she'd long wondered about and allowing her to make connections to her own sensibility.
In her stand-up routines, Butler (like Richard Pryor) is one of those rare comics who speak from experience rather than a manufactured persona. There's nothing pre-fabricated here about what could have been standard show-biz fodder: her battles with booze and dope, and her three years as an abused wife. Butler even manages compassion -- and not condescending compassion -- for the ex who did things like hold a gun to her head while he forced her to flush her wedding ring down the toilet. And she's startlingly honest about her role in the relationship. Here she is on what drove her to leave: "He was taking a nap on the couch and I was cleaning up the kitchen. I was looking under the sink for something and saw a pipe wrench. . . I picked up the wrench and started to swing it like a bat. . . One of the greatest feelings in the world is to hear the crack of a well-hit ball against a bat. I wanted to feel it again." Butler may be another celeb writing a bio, but there's no doubt she's a writer.