Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2007
Stanford General Books
US First Edition Hardcover
346 Pages; $24.95
Publication Date: 10-01-2007
Date Reviewed: 12-02-07
In the first pages of his new memoir, Michael Krasny admits that he wanted to write fiction, but was unable to do so. The honesty with which he speaks is a little frightening, and that sense of unease really never goes away. We quickly learn that Krasny's first literary love was the bildungsroman as exemplified by Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March. His attempts to write such a work, we are told, all too briefly, went nowhere. He was forced to focus his efforts elsewhere, first as an educator then, almost accidentally, as an interviewer. His first interview, with Gore Vidal, did not go well. But it was certainly not to be his last.
'Off Mike' is a fascinating look at a life in the arts over the last forty years. Krasny organizes the books with a compelling sense of what the reader wants, and then provides that and more. Each chapter consists of an autobiographical narrative followed by abstracted prose pieces based on his interviews. This allows Krasny to accomplish a couple of very clever things. It keeps the "my life as a failed writer who drifted into interviewing" parts short and snappy. The nuggets at the end of each chapter both extend the autobiographical narrative and take us completely out of it. They give the reader and the writer room to breathe, something to look forward to. It's like dinner and dessert in each chapter.
What makes Krasny's memoir unusual is that his life in some ways was not so unusual. He's right when he suggests that lots of readers out there might have thought they had the stuff to become writers, only to discover differently. And as he lays out the map of his life, he demonstrates — entirely without self-congratulation — that it is possible to live a life in the arts without being identified as or self-identifying as an "artist." He doesn't turn failure into a virtue, but instead lets his success speak for itself, even as he points out every flawed word, every inept response, and every painful episode he can pull out of his memory.
Krasny's prose voice is as balanced as his on-air personality, and it makes for delightful reading. There's a nice sense of humor to his embarrassing revelations that allows us to enjoy his success as he rises up through the ranks of Bay Area radio. He agonizes about having to interview brilliant writers then break to read ad copy for hemorrhoid cream while working for a commercial station. As the sixties slide into the seventies and beyond we can enjoy his sense of the times, since he casts himself as something of a nebbish. But even as Krasny enjoys his self-deprecation, and the reader does as well, he builds up a backlog of emotional authority. Honesty is clearly the best policy so far as Krasny the memoir-writer is concerned.
Of course, the memoir is only part of the story; the rest of the tale is told in Krasny's abstracted interviews, and here we see a very different man. As an interviewer, Krasny is clearly an artist of the highest caliber. He's astute, extremely literate and very entertaining. The interview excerpts are not in the same chronological order as the rest of the narrative. Instead they act as fragments from a broken mirror, carefully arranged to show us the true image of the man. They are carefully chosen to complement the autobiographical narrative, but not in an obvious manner. Krasny is all show and no tell. Readers are accorded the intelligence the author clearly possesses, and allowed to put the picture together themselves. This is one of the primary pleasures of reading any work. Krasny knows this and lets readers enjoy his craft.
Unfortunately, the publisher is not quite so kind. If there's any flaw in this book, it's in what's not there — interview audio and video. One might think that the publisher would deign to include a DVD containing at least some of the interviews Krasny abstracts. While I'm sure that much of Krasny's oeuvre is available online — you can hear him streamed five days a week at KQED.org — it still would have been nice to have the best of the best to hand, especially for those not fortunate enough to have him as a local fixture. To my mind, hearing him navigate the treacherous waters of live radio with famous guests and random callers is highly beneficial to understanding the full power of his memoir.
In the end, the self-deprecating humor strips away everything but the poignant emotional undertow that Krasny has been building throughout the book. Yes, Krasny writes about the deaths of his parents, but by the time he does so, he's created himself as an actual Everyman, yet paradoxically, a highly literate and artistic Everyman. He merges the two opposing identities in himself and suggests that anyone else can do so as well. That may or may not be true, but it makes for great reading. And in the final analysis, by following his own life, Krasny has largely done what he set out to accomplish so long ago. He's written his bilddungsroman, only it's non-fiction and the better for it. So long ago, he could never have lived the life be was going to live had he seen himself as successful in his writing endeavors. How could he have come up with the wonderfully creative meta-fictional idea of including interviews with actual, living writers as part of a novel of self-cultivation? Whatever the case, we have only to be thankful for the result. 'Off Mike' is funny, moving and highly intelligent. If you want to know where you've been for the last forty years, this might be a good place to start looking.