Denial, the River in Egypt: Cat Marnell, George Jones

February 01, 2019

A review of memior by Cat Marnell and a biography of George Jones "How to Murder Your Life: A Memoir"
By Cat Marnell

"The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones"
By Rich Kienzle

The unspoken social contract for addiction memoirs is that we get to enjoy the downfall as long as there is redemption in the end. Shenanigans are exhilarating but the reckonings must invariably follow. But sometimes, lives do not go down this rutted pathway, as two otherwise widely-divergent life accountings attest: A memoir from Cat Marnell and a biography of country music singer George Jones.

These two individuals could not be any different from one another, and yet neither entirely succumbed to swearing off their demons entirely. Jones started young and continued his drinking, at least to "moderate" levels, late into life. And on the other side of a pretty treacherous ride through substance abuse, Marnell confesses to enjoying a nibble of Adderall before hitting the treadmill.

After some saucy preliminaries about D.C. latchkey upbringing (interesting dirt on the party habits of rich D.C. kids), Marnell focuses on her post-college years working as a fashion/beauty editor for the Conde Naste during the day, and getting wrecked at night.

“The more amphetamine I took, the more fun being by myself was, actually. Speed was like magic. Lonely magic," she wrote. It's enjoyable in the usual young-woman-coming-of-age-in-NYC way. Marnell's prose is punchy, clever, and very conscious of keeping the reader entertained--a carryover in part from the skills of forced brevity that one obtains from magazine writing.

But it's Marnell's second act that flaunted the indestructibility of youth! After finally being ejected by the New York magazine publishing world for being too extra, she does a few unfruitful turns in rehab. "Before I arrived, I thought rehab was like, I don't even know, a place where a party girl could recharge her batteries, you know, before she could return all refreshed and healthy feeling,” she wrote, before concluding. “I’ve had tanning bed experiences that were more transformative."

Eventually, she returns to NYC to work in what was then a burgeoning NYC world of first person-driven media blogs, all bent on deconstructing the staid world of old-school magazine journalism with ballsy unconventionality. Those were the days where you could do anything with a basic blog platform and some social media pimping. Gawker was the required daily reading to get you through the dreary day at the desk, and everyone had friends who worked at Vice, even though the pay was shit.

Jane Pratt's frank XOJane was on this edge, and used the fullest of Marnell's talents. Focusing the glossy magazine skills on her knowledge of the late night party life, she produced a friendly, raw, savvy, and at times legit helpful service journalism for the street.

“That’s how you come down from angel dust," she wrote in the book. "You pound whole milk. Weird, right? Don’t ask me how it works, but it does.”

Here's my testimonial that Marnell has mad service journalism skills: I posted the above quote from her to Twitter while I was reading the memoir, along with an Amazon link back to the book. A few weeks later I got a tidy little $3 royalty from Amazon, from someone who bought the book from this link, and then a variety of beauty-care products. Marnell doesn't even try, and she brings the dollars.

But then, New York is filled with these folks, people for whom being a genius is the least of their worries.

Someone else with talent to burn was country music singer George Jones, who recorded nearly 1,000 songs, a surprisingly large portion of which are about denial, of one sort or another: Denial about being in love, denial about drinking too hard, denial about carrying bad 1970s fashion choices into the next decade, and denial about her never coming back...

My interest in George Jones was piqued by a comment made by Tyler Mahan Coe (Of the excellent "Cocaine and Rhinestones" podcast) about who he thought the best country music singer was. It was George Jones ("Whoever else you'd pick would also say George Jones"). Both Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett respected Jones as a singer, and he remained a country singer, and only a country singer, for his entire career.

George Jones (Known as Glenn to his childhood friends and family) grew up in the thickets of Saratoga Texas, a hard impoverished place where a man was expected to provide for his family, and a woman was to care for the family and put up with her man, whatever the cost. An occasional moonshiner, the father of George, who was the last of 8 kids drank hard as well, and when he'd get home drunk, he'd called for George and his singer to sing for him, else get a whipping by the belt. George had taken from music pretty much from birth, a child prodigy of sorts.

Naturally, he got out of the house as soon as he could. He found that busking in Jasper, a town not too far from Beaumont, got him $24. By that time, his parents moved to Beaumont, to take part of the booming war work. His sister had married her boyfriend, a farmer, in order to get out of the house, and George would visit them as well, sometimes pretending to be a hobo at the door as a prank.

His early years after leaving home were furtive, full of trouble and all about playing music. His friends noticed he never seemed to have a home, but just drifted from staying at one person's house to another, even borrowing his guitars. When his father would com round, the old man would be drunk, asking for money.

George got married early, an ill-fated coupling that lasted barely three years, before she filed for divorce, his drinking and brutish behavior cited as reasons. To make the child support payments (yes, they had a child even as he drifted to from one dead-end job to another), the judge gave the young Jones the choice o going to jail or joining an armed service. He picked the Marines, because they had no wait list. Somehow, he didn't get shipped Korea, where there was a police action underway, but to Santa Cruz instead. There he finds happiness singing in the clubs on the weekend, where he was favored because he could sing any of the hits.

Other Notes and Quotes: "How to Murder Your Life"

“Adderall and scissors do not mix. You should only be allowed to have one or the other at home.”

“The whole point of having interns is to haze them, and to make them fucking earn their future careers.”

“Internships, they are full of awkward moments, and uncomfortable initiation rituals.”

“Bulimia attracts mice: Fact.”

“Out on the streets, rats run this town, ala Rihanna and Jay-Z. The mice here are far more insidious. They invade your apartment.”

“I was so cranked that you could have called me an old-timey car and sold me to Jay Leno.”

“I was getting into some real pillhead shit, like twisting time-release capsules open to make them work faster.”

“Before I arrived, I thought rehab was like, I don’t even know, a place where a party girl could recharge her batteries, you know, before she could return all refreshed and healthy feeling.”

“I’ve had tanning bed experiences that were more transformative.” Cat Marnell on rehab.

“You’ll find them at every nice rehab, in fact — spoiled, shit-talking, adult children on chaise lounges, smoking cigarettes that they charge to their parents. Sorry, but it’s true.”

“Being clean had felt really great in Connecticut. But back in Manhattan, not being on stimulants just felt wrong. My energy didn’t match the city’s energy any more.”

“Part of Jane’s glamor was that she was infuriatingly unglamorous.” — Cat Marnell on XO Jane founder Jane Pratt.

“I’m HIV-free. My ER doctor told me so.”

“I had to push myself to get out there. No more isolating. ‘Recluses get weak,’ as Jenny Holzer said.”

“We squirreled away in Marco’s apartment and snorted tiny piles of off-white heroin all night.”

“On my first visit, I walked in with $200 cash, and out with so many paper prescriptions that I could literally spread them and fucking fan myself.” #CatMarnell “How To Murder Your Life”

Courtney Love should get a lifetime achievement award of sorts for showing up in other people’s memoirs during the most chaotic times of their lives. It’s like a superpower

“There’s not even champagne here, Julie, it’s just fucking Prosecco.”

“You know how in in ‘Meet The Parents,’ Ben Stiller is all ‘You can’t say bomb on an airplane?’ I guess the same goes for writing heroin in a work e-mail”

“I’ve been stuck in a gnarly cycle of performance-enhancing drug abuse, followed by completely falling apart ever since ... As my addiction has continued to progress, I’ve stopped trusting my brain to do anything on its own.”

“Runner’s high is so crazy, especially when you boost that shit with a little nibble of adderall just before you hit the treadmill.”

“Unhealthy people attract other unhealthy people. And girls on drugs attract bad guys like a wounded baby deer attracts vultures.”