Back in 1993, when the popular novelist Anne Lamott published “Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year,’’ the book felt like a revelation. Here at last was a woman willing to confess to the dank underside of motherhood, the days of rage and confusion that accompany every bundle of joy. That Lamott was a 35-year-old single mom with a colicky son and a gift for irreverence in the face of turmoil only made her memoir that much more compelling.
Lamott’s newest book, “Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son’’ has the feel of a sequel that can’t hope to match the original. This isn’t the author’s fault, entirely. In the two decades since “Operating Instructions’’ appeared, the parenting industry has exploded. Our culture is now awash in books about babies - not just how to get them to sleep and share and learn, but also about the dizzying menu of anxieties they induce in those who raise them.
Lamott’s story here begins with a promising opening salvo: “Amy was twenty when she delivered, and Sam was nineteen. They’re both a little young, but who asked me?’’ Unfortunately, the life of her grandson, Jax, never quite comes across as an underdog saga. This is a baby, after all, whose overweening grandma throws a party for him every month. Lamott also basically subsidizes the young couple, helping them pay rent on an apartment in San Francisco and even pay for basics like food and diapers, while Sam attends art school and Amy tends to Jax.
The central dramas in the book feel relatively inconsequential. Will Jax be baptized in Lamott’s beloved Marin County church? Will the author be able to curb her control freak tendencies? Lamott does a ton to support the couple, both financially and emotionally. But as an author she can do little more than fret from the sidelines.
It’s a testament to her talents, in fact, that she’s able to shape such weak material into an engaging read. Her insights into infancy, tempered both by age and distance, remain as wry as ever. “Now there are things he wants, now, and he fusses if denied,’’ she notes of her grandson. “If you ask me, babies are already ruined by seven months old. Once you drive them off the lot, they lose fifty percent of Blue Book value.’’
Elsewhere, though, Lamott’s cogitations feel mawkish and new agey. There’s much talk of meditation, acupuncture, bodywork, ashrams, and, especially, prayer.
It’s refreshing to see an author write about her spiritual life so candidly. But too often her reveries come off as a kind of evangelism. Dogged by fears that Jax will ruin her son’s life, Lamott writes, “Finally I thought to pray - it had completely escaped me that I believe in divine mind and comfort. I’d forgotten that if I said the Great Prayer - Help - I would experience that God was with me, that, as Muktananda put it, God dwells within me, as me.’’
With no offense intended to Muktananda, who I’m sure is a top-notch guru, I found myself wishing Lamott would ease up on the self-helpy homilies, and instead delve deeper into the sources of her rage and sorrow - namely whether Sam and Amy will stick it out as a couple, or whether Amy will take Jax back to her native Chicago.
Of course, considering her target audience, Lamott is perhaps wise to sidestep these tougher questions. It is the undisputed prerogative of the grandparent, after all, to kibitz and cuddle.
“Some Assembly Required’’ is far too sentimental to be called a literary triumph. But it might well be the dawning of the age of Granny Lit.Steve Almond is the author, most recently, of the story collection “God Bless America.’’