When I read that Texas writer and National Public Radio commentator Marion Winik aspired to become the Erma Bombeck of the baby boomers, my first reaction was: No way, Winik is far too hip. The late Erma Bombeck was a favorite of middle-class grannies everywhere, including my own. Winik, on the other hand, was the loud, smart, over-the-top New Jersey girl who caroused from a semiotics degree at Brown University to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where she met a gay bartender, introduced him to heroin and married him. Though Winik was occasionally reduced to calling gorgeous, screwed-up Tony a "junkie faggot with AIDS," their marriage was essentially loving. Tony fathered her children and left her a widowed soccer mom in 1994. She described it all in her riveting and strangely sweet 1996 memoir, "First Comes Love."
"The Lunch-Box Chronicles" is a sequel of sorts, the story of a day in
Winik's life as the single mother of Vince, 6, and Hayes, 9. It's a fairly conventional life: Since Tony's death, she has evolved into a bill-paying, football-loving earth mom whose idea of big fun is an occasional cigarette and gin martini. Her boyfriend is a heterosexual golfer with two children of his own, "a whisky drinker, something of an old-fashioned guy on gender and lifestyle issues ... A person who would never, for example, pierce his ear." "Lunch-Box" is Winik's progressive attempt at the frazzled woman's domestic comedy in the tradition of Bombeck.
The book begins '90s-style, as Winik collects her sons at school in her sport utility vehicle: "I can't wait to see them, to repossess them, to get them back on my territory, whole, healthy and breathing." The narrative follows the family through the next 18 hours: the Shake 'N Bake pork chop dinner, the bedtime struggles, the microwaved bacon and cartoons in the morning. It ends as Winik drops them back at school: "I bet this is what it's going to be like when they leave for good, too. I bet you never get your kiss," she writes. "I bet they never even say goodbye."
It was one of the great strengths of "First Comes Love" that Winik could describe herself as an out-of-control mess -- chasing Mr. Wrong because he was just so damn pretty -- and still come off as enviably sane. There is something singularly cheerful about her that bursts through in her writing. This is no neurasthenic, victimized memoirist: Winik is a sanguine and gutsy survivor, a little bemused by her reckless past, if unashamed. While this upbeat style helped ground the memoir of her funky marriage, it's only partly successful here. One of the conventions of the domestic comedy is the cultivation of a sense of wry ambivalence on the part of the harried mom: the trying quirks of the kids, the husband who won't change a toilet paper spindle. For all the lip service Winik pays to the madness of child-rearing, she never appears even faintly ambivalent.
Maybe because she was once so wild, she can't repress a palpable love for the ordinariness, the rhythms, the casual sensuality of children and domesticity. She revels in her sons' physicality: "Until Hayes was 7, we still took baths together, slipping and sliding around the soapy tub. At night, both of them would toddle, later tiptoe, into my bed, clinging like barnacles to the mamaboat until dawn," she writes. "I had mixed feelings about this practice, as Vincie had the habit of wrapping his little hands around my neck, rhythmically clutching and unclutching, and Hayes would often wake me with a hot stream of pee." Gross? A little, but Winik makes it seem practically cozy.
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Winik is at her best when she's writing frankly and vividly about subjects that would make other writers -- and parents -- squeamish. Like how to talk to kids about sex and drugs. She devotes a chapter, "Our Bodies, Their Selves," to parental nudity. When her older son asks to touch her vagina, she is flustered, but not for long. "Well, durn, Hayes, as they say down here in Texas, I don't think so," Winik writes. "In fact I'm quite sure not."
Winik's candor is fresh and attractive. She is up front with everything from her children's sexuality to her own PMS-fueled anger. This is not a woman with deeply buried "issues." Winik slaps her son when he's driving her nuts, burns with shame -- and forgives herself. She's aging hard and can't find the time to moisturize -- but heck, that's OK too. She prefers one of her boyfriend's daughters to the other -- but that's life. She is an intelligent woman who can no longer focus on the New Yorker at the end of the day -- and happily picks up a collection of Erma Bombeck instead.
Which brings us to the question of how Winik measures up to the woman on whose
work she has modeled her own. If you, like me, haven't read Bombeck lately (if ever), it will come as a surprise. Bombeck of the frosted hair and cheesy book titles ("Family: the Ties That Bind ... and Gag!") was sly, subversive and stunningly smart. She could find dramatic tension in the most humdrum household event; she could evoke the humor, loneliness, boredom and pleasure of parenthood in the course of a single sentence. Yes, Winik has written an easygoing, likable book. But where is the dramatic tension? Where is the conflict? Where is the bite?
Winik can't hide her delight in her children; Bombeck didn't even try to
disguise a certain restlessness. Of her postnatal depression, Bombeck wrote: "Had it not been for 'As the World Turns' and pacifiers, I'd have slipped into humming and braiding my hair. Every day I'd put a pacifier into whatever part of his face was open, get a plate full of buttered noodles and sit in front of the TV set and watch someone who was worse off than I was." It's hard to tell if she's kidding or not, but it's that very ambiguity -- is this funny? is this sad? -- that brings it breathtakingly close to the truth.
Although Bombeck also wrote eloquently on the joys of motherhood, she defended working moms and frequently wrote about the fact that when the kids head
off to school -- if not sooner -- it's time to start having a life. "My excuse for everything just got on that bus," she writes of a woman's anxiety when a child starts school. "My excuse for not dieting, not getting a full-time job, not cleaning house, not re-upholstering the furniture, not going back to school, not having order in my life, not cleaning the oven."
Kids as an excuse not to face the world? That's just one of the many complicated things children can turn out to be, and Bombeck wrote about them all. Reading Bombeck in tandem with Winik points up what is missing from the latter. Winik is warm, appealing and personal; Bombeck was cool, universal and wickedly funny. For all her wild youth, Winik comes off as literal-minded, earnest and slightly square; Bombeck was always just a little badder than you'd expect. The issue in the end is not that Marion Winik is too edgy to wear Erma Bombeck's crown. She isn't edgy enough.