Public Apology: In Which a Man Grapples With a Lifetime of Regret, One Incident at a Time
If the old and somewhat tattered adage is true and “many a true word is spoken in jest,” then Dave Bry has a great deal to answer for, because in his Public Apology he makes a great many jokes about a great number of (mostly venial) sins.
And if these apologies represent the man himself in truth, then the guy’s a mess.
But does that mean that Public Apology works as well as a book of humorous essays as it does in that Hamlet-y kind of way, holding a mirror up to nature?
No. It doesn’t.
In what may be considered a triumph of packaging over content, Mr. Bry manages to take a rather tedious memoir of roughly the first half a rather typical American life lived in the latter part of what we now think of as the “last millennium”—East coast upbringing, professional parents, wasted youth—snip it up into bite-sized pieces, each connected to a failing, a mistake or an instance of thoughtless behavior, and address each to the person or persons harmed by that behavior, and Bingo: Public Apology: In Which a Man Grapples with a Lifetime of Regret, One Incident at a Time. It’s that “one incident at a time” that gets you in the end.
The concept of the book admittedly is great, setting the reader’s hopes high.
But those high hopes falter as the pages turn.
As the author apologizes to Mike Eovino and Wally Rapp (“Sorry for offering you fake drugs in the boys’ room at the Markham Place Middle School. It was not a nice thing to do.”) or to the owner of a bistro in Paris (“Sorry for spitting a mouthful of hamburger back onto my plate in front of your customers.”) or to Judy Gailhouse (“Sorry for letting your children watch The Amityville Horror.”).
The reasons why the helium leaks out of the mouse-in-the-house balloon that is Public Apology are twofold:
• The first is that there is a rather smug sameness to the apologies presented. They, no matter who they are addressed to, are variations on a handful of rather petty themes—bad behavior while drunk/stoned (passing out and/or throwing up chief among them), mean-spiritedness and/or sullenness, most often during, but not limited to, adolescence (the behavior patterns seem to linger far past the teen years), being a bad friend/boyfriend/husband/father/son/brother, and general selfishness and/or self-centeredness—rather as if a petty thief had decided to sit down an write a book “humorously” recounting each kited check, each pocket picked.
• The second is that so very many of the public apologies listed here involve drugs and alcohol that they seem more the provenance of Step Nine: Making Amends than they do a book of humorous essays.
Still, there’s also this:
“Sorry I didn’t come right away when you called me.
“This happened on December 25, 1990, the day you died. Since you are dead now, and I don’t imagine that you can read this, or hear it, or know my thoughts or anything, I suppose this is more of an apology to myself. For screwing up in a way that has made me feel bad since. Not horribly, terribly bad—I don’t beat myself up over it too much. But it’s one of those things that I wish I could do over again. I would do it differently.”
In a book that depends far too much of the time on the belief that the reader will find interest in an apology to a girl who went unkissed or to rock star John Bon Jovi over having had his front lawn once littered with beer cans, the parts that explore the relationship between Dave Bry and his father a sense of reality and, yes, regret, that the rest of the text otherwise lacks.
And the portions of the book that deal with his father’s struggle with cancer are by far the best in that they actually seem to involve the emotional risk and vulnerability that actual apologies inevitably hold.
The best of the essays is one that expresses what might be considered an existential regret:
“Sorry for choosing Hannah and Her Sisters when you asked me to go out and rent some movies for our family to watch to get our minds off the fact that Dad had been diagnosed with cancer.
“You remember, I’m sure, that this was just a couple of weeks before I graduated from high school. It must have been a weekend because we were all at home in the afternoon. Dad walked into the TV room with his friend David Landy. You could tell that David Landy had been crying.
“’The doctor just hit me with it,’ Dad said. ‘Boom.’ His eyes looked like they weren’t really looking at us, and his voice sounded like it was coming from far away. But he said he thought that the doctor had done the right thing. ‘So I’m going to hit you with it.’
“The cancer had started in his lung. At least that’s what they thought. It was hard to tell. By the time anybody knew anything, it had spread to his brain and his lymph nodes and his spinal column and everywhere. Metastasized was the unfamiliar word. The doctor had told him that he would be dead in two months.”
We do, in the course of the apology, look back to Hannah and Her Sisters (inappropriate because Woody Allen’s character in the film fears he has a brain tumor) and this brief tale of the awkwardness of youth and of a young man’s grappling with harsh reality (“Dad has cancer.” I said it out loud to myself. “Dad is dying.”) sets a high bar that, sadly, the rest of the book fails to reach.
Had these apologies been given more variation of theme, of content, even of consideration from the point of view of their author, and had they not been trapped within a simple forward-marching timeline that forces the apologies into groupings that only enhance their sameness. Any other context, lessons learned, stream of consciousness, would have been better.
Had Dave Bry challenged himself a bit more, dug a bit deeper, and made this reader laugh a bit more often, identify with him a bit more easily, he might have really been onto something here. And his Public Apology might have become something more than just a batch of comic, tragic, and humane essays. Public Apology might have become a whole new genre.