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Eddie Sarfaty's Mental: Funny in the Head [21 October, 2009]

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By Eddie Sarfaty, Kensington Press; 256 pages

The title and cover of Eddie Sarfaty’s book Mental: Funny in the Head lead us to believe that this is to be a rollercoaster ride into the quirky dives of one man’s head, a set of wild escapades and crazy adventures.  The truth rarely acknowledged is that most comics are terrible writers on the page.  They mistake punch lines for plot development and do little more than string together comedic jabs in the vain hope that, somehow, the reader will be fooled into thinking that all of that constitutes a book.  And so it was that I picked up Sarfaty’s book and waited for the worst: a set of clichés about the fun and funny life of a gay, Jewish, stand-up comic living in New York.

Fortunately, for the reader, Mental is the opposite; a set of hilarious, vivid and thoughtful commentaries on, well, yes, what it means to be a gay, Jewish stand-up comic living in New York.  But it’s Sarfaty’s gift for observation and telling details that enable him to original pieces that stand on their own as short gems.  Like Bob Smith, a fellow stand-up comic and author of Selfish and Perverse, Sarfaty is that rare comic who knows how to write.

In “My Tale of Two Cities,” Sarfaty accompanies his parents to Paris and London on their once-in-a-lifetime voyage to Europe.  Sarfaty’s father, now dead, had Pick’s disease, which can be mistaken for Alzheimer’s.  Or, as Sarfaty describes it, “In addition to Alzeheimer’s it has components of Lou Gehrig’s disease and Parkinson’s as well.  It’s kind of like winning the neurological trifecta.”  This ability to combine the poignant with dry wit suffuses the piece.  His mother is resolute about including her husband in every activity.  She is equally resolute about finding a bottle of Shalimar, a perfume available at Bloomingdale’s, convinced that it must be cheaper in Paris than in the United States.  It is not, of course, but her quest is not unlike that of millions of other tourists who leave home to find the familiar in strange lands.

In Sarfaty’s hands, this is not simply a dull retelling of an ordinary quest.  His characters emerge as real people, not stereotypes, even when they are not his relatives.  Woven into the story of the trip is an account of his parent’s marriage and their relationship enduring the fact that his father is rapidly receding from their reality as his memories fade.  Sarfaty has a light touch, and he’s able to combine humour with poignancy without being sentimental.

He’s also capable of surprise, as with the lovely ending of “Lactose Intolerant.”  “The Eton Club” is the longest piece in the collection, clocking in at nearly forty pages, but it remains engrossing.  The club in question is frequented by older and wealthy gay men who like to spend their evenings drinking, and not much else.  The center of the story is Wendell James Briar, a wealthy lawyer whose finances gradually deteriorate before the eyes of Safarty, who works at the club.  Briar, a complex and sympathetic character, finally succumbs to AIDS, a disease he refused to acknowledge he had.  Safarty’s astute but spare words capture the meanings of the disease for a generation and for a certain class of gay men: “In Wendell’s mind it had become an affliction of minorities, the poor, and the stupid, and I likened him to a society matron who”d rather go down with a sinking luxury liner than share a lifeboat with the steerage passengers.”  Mental is filled with evidence that a good writer does not need extraordinary situations to come up with a gripping story.

Sarfaty is fearless about recounting his sex life and it’s a resolutely and unapologetic gay sex life.  At a time when gay men, in the pursuit of marriage, seem determined to wipe out any traces of their erotic lives, this book comes as a welcome change.  Mental is the sign of a fresh new talent.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 21 October, 2009

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