People believe anything that’s in writing
A word to the wise to scoundrels everywhere, and there are plenty on display in Betsy Robinson’s satiric whirlwind.
So you think you’ve got it bad? You might consider the case of one Zelda McFigg. She had a pretty tough go of it at school. The hand she was dealt must have been delivered from the bottom of the deck by a particularly hostile card sharp. Despite having a pretty decent brain, Zelda got stuck with short, fat, and malodorous when stressed. She is also given to bouts of dramatic blushing. Her classmates made matters worse by labeling her Stinky Pinky. Doesn’t make for an educational venue conducive to learning, or anything for that matter except exceeding anyone’s RDA for misery. Not that home was any great shakes either. Mom was an alcoholic, as likely to drown in her own vomit as she was to burn down their abode with a feckless cohabitation of Marlboros and painting materials. Dad was pretty much out of the scene anyway.
Needing to make at least some use of her hooky day, 14-year-old Zelda decides to take a chance and goes to Manhattan to visit a beat poet-musician (Mike the poet) whose work she admires. Turns out he could use some help. Turns out she is just the girl for the job. Turns out, when she never quite makes it home, that this is the beginning of a thirty-five year odyssey for Zelda.
It is not a particularly easy road she travels. There are hazards aplenty and it seems that she has provided more than her share of them. She carries with her the twin DNA of schlemiel and schlemazel. Oy! Her journey takes to her such exotic experiences as a free-the-test-animals raid on a hospital lab, a less than stellar audition for Annie, working props in a New England summer theater, and burning down her landlady’s house in an ill-fated attempt to rescue her pet. She does settle down after her initial wanderings, in the lovely tundra of Vermont, having left a trail of carnage in her wake. Part-time hall monitor at the Moose Country Middle School, she is pulled into action when a ninety-year-old English teacher catches a bad case of dead and an immediate fill-in is needed. It looks like she has gotten off the road this time. She continues with teaching The Call of the Wild, and picks a pet, the overweight, smelly, and socially tormented Donny Sherman, a local Native American kid. It looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship
There are some uncomfortable elements here and some wonderful ones. The apparent fondness of New England teachers for their under-age students is hardly unique, but feels dodgy nonetheless. Zelda’s regard for the law is like that of a passenger on a bus noting a billboard. It might be worth some consideration, but not for too long. On the other hand, there are some seriously LOL nuggets in Zelda’s path
I soon found myself doing props for a small summer theatre in New England run by a man who, had he not been a Jewish homosexual hippie named Rainbow, I might have mistaken for Adolph Hitler.
She also comes across a pet parrot that speaks in the voice of its owner’s late husband, to raucous effect. Satirical objects whiz past with satisfying frequency, as Robinson goes not only for some low-hanging fruit like shamanism, Tony Robbins, Hollywood faddism and Oprah, but also directs some attention to the darker elements of life, things like police overreaction to a school hostage situation that isn’t, being backstabbed by those you thought were close to you, being kicked out of your home by the rich and feckless, and the scandal ridden hell that is small town life in Vermont. I did cackle out loud from time to time while reading this on the subway, causing some fellow riders to glance furtively, wondering whether I was receiving instructions from the dog god in my head, as they tried to shift their bodies and belongings out of potential harm’s way.
The writing life comes under scrutiny, and it is not a pretty image, heavily laden as it is with ghosts, plagiarists, thieves, absurd expectations, lifetimes of labor for non-existent rewards, familiar features for most who put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboards. Teaching life is also a subject clearly close to Ms Robinson’s heart. The details of the school experience she scewers will seem familiar to most, and are, at times, darkly hilarious.
The peripatetic Ms McFigg seems reasonably pure of heart, a road worrier more than a road warrior, although she does engage in righteous battle from time to time, and is easy to root for as she stumbles through her trials. There is plenty of emotion in this life, both joy at this or that success, and sadness at this or that betrayal. We can certainly all relate when Zelda goes looking for help in getting from point A to point B, and finds the proffered assistance less than helpful. Most of us can probably relate to her inability to lose weight, but can admire her insistence on carrying on as best she can. I was most reminded of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, another saga of a square peg in a round world.
Betsy Robinson has had an interesting career sojourn herself. In her site, she notes that she
was raised an atheist and went on to make her living as a writer and editor of spiritual subject matter: as managing editor of Spirituality & Health magazine for six and a half years and as an editor of spiritual psychology and books about shamans and traditional healers
so she certainly brings an appreciation of irony to her writing. She has worked as an actress in nearly-on-Broadway, somewhat-close-to-Broadway and just-down-the-block-from Broadway, had scripts produced in Iowa, Amherst, LA and darkest cable TV, and has authored many article and several books, so brings that experience to bear when writing of the publishing and theater worlds through which Zelda stumbles.
Betsy Robinson has written an entertaining romp, both raucous and endearing, rich with wit and observation. It is funny and foul, dark, but lightly, a bit disturbing, but only slightly. There’s much to enjoy in this book (it’s not big), The Last Will and Testament of Zelda McFigg. It’s all written down. You can believe it.
Review posted – 9/25/15
Publication date – 9/13/14
P.S. – The book was provided by the author in return for an honest review. And I plan to return it real soon. It is impressive how good I have become at removing cat vomit from paper, (soooo much experience) and the singe marks, well, they’re not all that obvious, the downside of reading while standing and preparing supper, then putting the book the tiniest bit too close to the burner. The watermarks may be a bit dodgier. We do enjoy reading while on the throne and parking the book du jour on the sink edge while getting up. Problem is that our large tabby, Scout, is the founding, and so far as we can tell, only member of the Occupy Sink movement, and has been known, on rare occasions, to lay claim to her territory by Divine Right, by removing from said territory any invading objects. Thankfully the volume was spared a watery grave in the nick of time, but not before taking on just a few wee drops. I am sure there are useful instructions on the internet that will allow me to remove the offending stain and…um…fragrance. But don’t worry. I guarantee I will be getting that volume back to the author any day now.