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Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life by Michael Greenberg

Beg, BorrowThe only living boy in New York…   These words by Paul Simon kept going through my head as I read Greenberg’s collection of 44 essays on life and living in the Big Apple.   Another title for this compilation might have been A Life in New York City.   To his credit, Greenberg does not try to convince the reader that everything in Manhattan and the boroughs is exciting; in fact, when writing about his daily commute he hopes that “(there’s) more to the monotony than I had expected.”

In theory this collection is supposed to focus on the tough work of trying to make a living as a writer.   That is a theme often returned to, but Greenberg nonetheless gives himself plenty of room in which to roam and create.   He has been, in fact, a successful writer most notably with last year’s release of the four-star non-fiction memoir Hurry Down Sunshine: A Father’s Story of Love and Madness.   But here we read about Greenberg, the free lancer, script doctor, ghost writer, writer-for-hire who uses his craft to distinguish his life from that of the typical career worker…  “I was willing to work harder than the next person to ensure that I didn’t have one.”  

Greenberg’s essays are a prime example of the writer as the detached, note-taking, chronicler and observer (He sought “work in which I could observe people, write, and get paid at the same time.”).   Reading Greenberg, I was reminded of the phrase used in the movie Elizabethtown – “We’re the substitute people.” – in which the main character finally learns that it’s best to enjoy life rather than watching others as they do so.   Yet Greenberg tells very true tales coincidentally parallel to this reader’s experiences.   Of working in a criminal courthouse, for example, he notes that “boredom was the permissible emotion”; the only permissible emotion.

The author also writes with humor and sophistication:  “When Tony Bennett crooned ‘Baby, Ain’t I Been Good to You?’ I could hear the tuxedo in his voice.”   How true, and the same was the case with Sinatra.

Is there any big message in this compilation?   Perhaps that everything counts, as Greenberg treats the lives of Wall Street movers and shakers and cab drivers and waiters and baristas equally.   Some gifted and talented writers are able to show us that everything in life is – in the words of The New York Observer – both “big and small in perfect proportion.”


Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life was released by Other Press on September 8, 2009. 

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   Thanks to Terrie at Other Press for the review copy.


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