My first encounter with Anne Lamott was a semi-satirical essay in Salon about her late-middle-age year on the dating site Match.com. Now collected in “Small Victories,” the piece mixes sarcasm with emotional sincerity, astute observation with self-congratulation.
Not one to suppress her biases, Lamott discounts the lure of sexual passion, declaring that, among her acquaintances, “almost none of the women would care if they ever got laid again, even when they are in good marriages.” Another zinger follows: “Also, ninety-one percent of men snore loudly — badly, like very sick bears.”
Nevertheless, Lamott, 60, admits to being lonely. So she embarks on a series of dates that make her “mourn the old days, when you met someone with whom you shared interests, chemistry, a sense of humor, and you started going out.” Instead, the profusion of options seems to inspire even promising Match prospects to disappear.
As a result, she writes, online dating is akin to “being on a board game, different-colored pieces being moved along the home path in Parcheesi.” Though romance remains elusive, Lamott takes pride in having opened her heart and relearned the art of dating — among her eponymous “small victories.”
Not all of the two dozen essays here, grouped into four sections — “Companions,’’ “Families,’’ “Airborne,’’ and “Ground’’ — have such a clear narrative arc. But, like “Matches,” most balance wry, acidic humor with deeper feeling — most often, a longing for grace and a sense of gratitude for its manifestations.
Grace and forgiveness both arrive, though not always easily, as byproducts of what she calls her “bad born-again” Christianity. She has come late to forgiveness, she tells us, and has found it “like trying to become a marathon runner in middle age.”
Lamott’s account of her spiritual strivings may strike a deeper chord with Christians. Others may be more attracted to her progressive, feminist politics, or her frankness about her troubled family life. A child of divorce and dysfunction, as well as a recovering alcoholic, she says she “ended up with an owner’s manual for dealing with craziness.”
That seems facile. But Lamott also writes compassionately about near-universal challenges: difficult parents, emotional betrayal, the ravages of illness and grief. Too many of her intimates have been afflicted with serious illnesses, including Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), cancer, and dementia. She portrays them, for the most part, as courageous, life-affirming role models.
In “Prelude: Victory Lap,” Lamott describes hiking Muir Woods, north of San Francisco, with her friend Barbara, who has ALS, a walker, and an iPad-based computer voice.
She transforms the hike into a spiritual journey, with the forest resembling a vast chapel. Lamott observes “frozen music in the giant redwoods” and felt herself “take on all the qualities that Barbara brought to the day, a fraught joy and awareness.”
Wrestling with her anger toward her dead parents is a far-tougher slog, and provokes some of her most powerful writing. In “Dad,” she relates that she adored her alcoholic, philandering father and, when he developed brain cancer, devoted herself to his care. Decades later, his former girlfriend sends along his journal, in which he criticizes Lamott for having “tried too hard to be brave and hopeful.” How can she possibly forgive this? Only, it seems, by tuning in to her pain and seeing her father in all his fearful human complexity.
Her mother — whose ashes reside in Lamott’s closet — poses a different problem. “I spent my whole life helping my mother carry around her psychic trunks,” she writes in the second of two mother essays, “like a bitter bellhop.” Lamott will have to learn, for her own sake, how to put them down. The reward will be the psychic payoff, described in “Sustenance,” of “opening myself to my own love and to life’s tough loveliness.”
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review. She can be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.