Wednesday, August 10, 2011

An Enjoyable Memoir From An Actor I Barely Know: Stories I Only Tell My Friend Works.

The Good: Very funny, Insightful stories, Generally well-written, Voice.
The Bad: No thematic unity, I realized quickly much of my enjoyment was based on outside appreciation of Lowe.
The Basics: Rob Lowe’s autobiography, Stories I Only Tell My Friends is an enjoyable romp that makes it seem like working with Martin Sheen on The West Wing was an inevitability.

A few weeks ago, I was at my local public library and I overheard a patron talking with two of the reactionary evangelical librarians (they exist! I was so shocked!) who work there. The patron was asking about Rob Lowe’s book and neither of the librarians had heard of it. The patron sneeringly told them that the book, Stories I Only Tell My Friends was all about how Rob Lowe was telling secrets of Hollywood. I knew of the book’s existence, but had pretty much vowed not to read it when I caught my wife checking out Rob Lowe shirtless on the cover of Vanity Fair. I knew enough about the book to correct the librarians when, two patrons later, they were still saying how horrible a man Rob Lowe must be for telling secrets. I pointed out that that book would be “Stories My Friends Told Me” and I left. I was shocked when last week, Stories I Only Tell My Friends was on the shelf, which makes me think someone liberal still works at the library.

Eager to show whatever closet liberal might still be working at the library that their efforts are appreciated, I immediately took out Stories I Only Tell My Friends. I was actually surprised at how fast the 306 page memoir read. Lowe has a decent narrative voice and the book is often funny and frequently poignant. But, it is worth getting right out of the way what I didn’t like about the book.

Lowe begins his memoirs stunningly, with the story of the photo shoot for George magazine that JFK Jr. fought to have . . . right before Kennedy died. Right off the bat, Rob Lowe is mentioning The West Wing (reviewed here!) and frankly, that’s why I had any interest at all in the book. For sure, it should not be a detraction that Lowe actually met consumer demand and wrote about his experiences on The West Wing! But the fundamental problem was that all I truly found myself caring about in Stories I Only Tell My Friends were the stories tangential to The West Wing. Ironically, in a book I recently read, I did not enjoy the namedropping; in Stories I Only Tell My Friends, I found I did like the references because I knew who Lowe was writing about, frequently before he made the references explicit.

So, for example, it was very easy to thrill upon reading that when Lowe moved to Malibu, he began hanging out with a child director, Chris Penn – with a reference to the subjects of his film, his brother Sean, friend Charlie and Charlie’s big brother Emilio (40)! As Lowe moves up in the acting world in Malibu, there are frequent near-misses or allusions to Martin Sheen. This makes, for people like me who were fans of The West Wing, thrilled because the inevitable meeting between the young Lowe and Martin Sheen a real treat to read.

Unfortunately, between those scenes and until the book moves into the sections on The West Wing Rob Lowe writes about his family, random Malibu surfer kids who died horribly and the struggle of becoming a young actor when you have an agent almost immediately and live right near Los Angeles. The book isn’t so much a “rags to riches” story as it is the story of a boy becoming a man on an inevitable ascent into superstardom. Rob Lowe writes about his young acting life with a matter-of-fact sense that reads with the very clear truth that professionally, acting was his sole passion in life.

The story also picks apart the personal foibles of Lowe, who was tabloid fodder in the late 1980s and early 1990s at a time when I didn’t care one wit about celebrity gossip. It tells of his early blooming and the seduction of women and booze in Hollywood before he got his act straight and fell in love with Sheryl. This section, much of the book, was in no way an atypical story or memoir and it became much more interesting to read about what parts Lowe passed on than the narratives about family or the like.

That’s not to say the book is bad in any way, but I can say that if I had no interest in Rob Lowe from The West Wing, this memoir would not have made me a fan. The reason is simple; all of the best parts put Lowe on the track to get that role of the lifetime and are in one way or another connected to it. Regardless, throughout Stories I Only Tell My Friends, Lowe has a distinctive narrative voice. He writes just like he speaks and that is fairly erudite, though the diction in the book is unchallenging to anyone who is fifteen years old or older.

It is hard not to appreciate his lines, though and he has some real beautiful prose. But more often than not, one can see him as Sam Seaborn smirking through some of the best moments. In that way, Lowe makes the mundane interesting again, like with his lines “As always, I want to keep my head down and assume all is well. If there is an eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room, I won’t be the one to point it out, lest I be eaten by it” (57). There are very few contemporary actors or writers who can truly get away with using the word “lest,” but he does it.

Ultimately, anyone who likes The West Wing, actor gossip, or Rob Lowe will find something to like about Stories I Only Tell My Friends. It’s an interesting memoir, even if it reads more like an archetype of the Hollywood story than any memorable exception to it.

For other memoirs, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Role Models – John Waters
Keeping Faith – Jimmy Carter
A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway


For other book reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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