Made in Manhattan
I’m reading Show Up, Look Good by Mark Wisniewski—the story of a thirty-something woman who moves to Manhattan from Kankakee, Illinois—and being reminded of when I first moved to New York. My first roommates were this couple—two guys that I only ever saw do two things: smoke weed or scream at each other—and on one of my first nights of living with them I fell asleep on the couch (like I usually do) and woke up to them taking bong hits and laughing hysterically at the movie Saw. I looked at them through the thick cloud of smoke and thought to myself, “What the hell am I doing here?” And that’s pretty much what Michelle, the narrator and protagonist of Show Up, Look Good, is doing throughout the entire novel.
Her first roommate is Etta, an elderly Norwegian woman who tells Michelle stories while she bathes her (in exchange for free rent). After a fire ignites in their Hell’s Kitchen building a bunch of eccentric characters fall into Michelle’s life: Ernest Coolridge, a retired former-Yankee baseball star who lost most of his jaw due to cancer, which forced him to write down all of his correspondence on a notepad; Frank and Francine, a swinging couple from Astoria, Queens who try to coerce Michelle into a ménage a trois, and consider themselves “entertainers”; Sarah, Michelle’s snotty “M.F.A.-at-NYU” roommate; there are megalomaniacal discount store owners, prostitutes—Show Up, Look Good is a parade of all the crazies people meet while living in New York.
And then there’s Michelle herself, who, for all her pragmatism and common sense, might be the craziest of them all. She “thinks too much” (the reason why her fiancée broke up with her) and offers wise insight to every bizarre NYC scenario she encounters—about everyone’s romantic relationship, and why the M.F.A. grad students are so mean to each other. Yet, it’s Michelle who always places herself in these destructive positions—as a ticket scalper, a discount store scammer, or a look-out for prostitutes. She seems to create turbulence just to see if she’ll fall or hold her ground.
Reading this, I also see how it connects to Wisniewski’s first novel, Confessions of a Polish Used Car Salesman because of these wonderful and absurd, yet deeply human characters, who, even when they’re sinister, feel like the author loves them. When you first meet Ernest, or Etta, it’s like a tornado has swept through town. You don’t know where it came from and you almost don’t believe that it exists. But then, after a couple pages you become more comfortable with it, and you look into the eye of the tornado and all the little details come alive. Wisniewski’s character driven novels have both been a joy to read.
And, of course, there’s a used car scene. What’s the deal with Wisniewski and used cars?