It's a Slippery Slope


Within a year, the familiar boundaries of Spalding Gray's existence have been altered by betrayal, love, lust and loss. He suddenly marries his longtime companion, and divorces her just as quickly; he moves in with his girlfriend, Kathie, who bears him a son; and he learns, against all odds, to ski. But not even his mastery of the much-feared right turn can prepare him for the exhilarating experience of fatherhood. A brilliant improvisation with as many twists and turns as a double-diamond course, It's a Slippery...

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Within a year, the familiar boundaries of Spalding Gray's existence have been altered by betrayal, love, lust and loss. He suddenly marries his longtime companion, and divorces her just as quickly; he moves in with his girlfriend, Kathie, who bears him a son; and he learns, against all odds, to ski. But not even his mastery of the much-feared right turn can prepare him for the exhilarating experience of fatherhood. A brilliant improvisation with as many twists and turns as a double-diamond course, It's a Slippery Slope explores how one man survives a mid-life crisis by finding his balance on skis.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The grand master of the first-person singular ... Skiing is definitely a Gray area." --Peter Marks, The New York Times

"Spalding Gray may be the nation's most outstanding storyteller. Nothing eludes his eye or the sureness of his satire. The secret of his success is the skewed angle of vision--his eccentric wit and ruthless candor." --Los Angeles Times

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In Swimming to Cambodia, Gray wove his insights on war into his account of the making of The Killing Fields; in Gray's Anatomy, his thoughts on the body and dying were linked with his search for a cure to his eye trouble. It was during the tour for Gray's Anatomy that he discovered the vehicle for this monologueskiing. But the real issues here are commonplace human crises: adultery, separation, fatherhood. Rene Shafransky was Gray's longtime collaborator, manager, director and, for 17 years, his girlfriend. The two had settled into an unofficially open relationship, but one of Gray's affairs, with a woman named Kathie, lasted a couple of years, and continued even after Gray and Shafransky married. Several months later, Kathie announced she was pregnant. Shafransky, thwarted in her own desire to have a child, was distraught and left Gray; eventually, Gray ends up with Kathie and their new son. Gray says that "telling a life was so much easier than living one." Easier, perhaps, but not easy. Despite his avowal that he no longer feels quite like the New England puritan, he's still uncomfortable talking about such intimate stuff, and resorts to clichs and dopey jargonfunctional, nonfunctional, healthy boundaries, arrested development and "inner kid." He even admits it: "There, I've said it, `fusion', the word that has a ring of popular psychobabble." His accounts of learning to ski are, by contrast, marked by his usual perceptiveness, elegance, humor and emotional precision. Gray had first come to acting because, "I thought, I could live a passionate life onstage without consequences." This is a portrait of a man in the painful process of being disabused. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Gray is our premier monologist, best known for Swimming to Cambodia (Theatre Communications, 1988) and Gray's Anatomy (Vintage, 1994). He is to drama what the confessional poet is to poetry; but his writing is much more precise than most confessional poets, and he has a liberating sense of amused bemusement about himself too often lacking in most modern poetry. Though not a play exactly (the author is writing deep autobiography here and then performing it himself on stage), this piece does have a three-act play structure. The outer two units are about the exterior life and learning to ski and to love its freedom and risk, hence "slippery slope." The center of the piece is also about freedom and risk, but it is inner and personal in an honest and painful way, chronicling marriage, divorce, and fatherhood. Gray has a gift for being directly in touch with his subconscious, with little censor function to cloud his vision. The hilarity and joyousness of the beginning and end is exactly countered by the seriousness and terror of the middle. Highly recommended.Thomas E. Luddy, Salem State Coll., Mass.
[D]uring my five winters as a bartender at a small ski area in Montana, I developed a serious, not unfounded prejudice regarding the verbal prowess of skiers. Or the lack thereof. Maybe it was my demeanor that left them all monosyllabic; I didn't have much more to say than "Here ya go" and "What's Clamato?" But every day spent on skis, they maintained, was a good day, or rather, "Great!" Especially when the snow was "Deep!" and there was lots of "Powder!" I always rolled my eyes and thought, "Can't they do any better than that?" I could get two, maybe three sentences just out of shoveling snow off the bar's deck. All day with the up and the down and all they could say was "Whew!"

Well. After reading Spalding Gray's midlife-crisis narrative, It's A Slippery Slope, I owe all my old drunk customers an apology. I'm now grateful they didn't burden me with long-winded descriptions of the alpine life. Because if their version of learning to ski was halfway as horrifyingly solipsistic as Gray's, then listening to them would have turned me into a bigger alcoholic than they ever were.

About his reason for attempting to learn to ski, Gray writes, "I wanted to do something extremely physically exertive, without an audience, to do something that wasn't going to be a story." Just one of many failures. As the print version of one of his self-obsessed monologues, Slippery Slope left me cold. Freezing, in fact. There's nothing wrong with turning your life into art, just as long as your life isn't irrelevant (read Gray's descriptions of his pointless New York days and you'll understand his preoccupation with suicide) and your art doesn't give the phrase "male fantasy" a bad name. (Fave sentence: "My erections belonged to history.")

At one point, I found myself so appalled by Gray's smallness that it seemed like he should be asked to forfeit capitalization privileges with regards to the letter "I." It might have been the scene where he proposes marriage to his longtime girlfriend, Ramona in his therapist's office. Or it could have been the part where he says, "I need an organized woman to organize my life." And by the time he destroys Ramona by fathering a child with another woman, every mention of the pleasures of skiing is offensive. Who does he think he is trying to enjoy himself after the mess he's made?

His new vision all comes together on the slopes when he tells a fellow skier, "I don't know if I'm having a good time or trying to kill myself." And the man replies, "When you're in that place that's when you know you're alive." Total jock bullshit. I could almost stomach Gray back when he was just another neurotic, city-slicker blabbermouth. Wrapping his act in Gore-Tex makes him unbearable. --Sarah Vowell

Kirkus Reviews
An avalanche of shallow solipsisms as the veteran monologist takes to the slopes and learns to ski.

Artists who plumb their lives for their work run the grave risk of using up all their best material and being reduced to diary trivialities and fire-sale reminiscences. Gray (Impossible Vacation, 1992, etc.) has seemed to be headed in this direction for a while; now he is finally there. He tries to freight everything with meaning—weighing skiing down with a series of pompous metaphors about existence—but this only amplifies the base banalities that threaten at every turn. "In order to be in control, you have to be out of control. . . . It's the first leap of faith that I've ever had in my life." As he stumbles along, he tries to drag in his mother's suicide, his unexpected fatherhood, and the breakup of his long-term relationship/marriage. The descriptions of this last item are as painful as any skiing injury, as Gray alternates self-justifying contrition with the kind of analysis you'd expect from a third-rate shrink. After he fathers a child with the "other woman" and his marriage disintegrates, Gray has an epiphany on the slopes that is almost startling in its egocentrism and moral obtuseness: "I thought I was going to self-destruct and instead I helped bring new life into the world. I gave myself a big high five, and I thought, You know, I've returned to New England and I'm no longer a puritan." The monologue style, with its frequent repetitions and digressions, makes all this even more awkward. What may work well before an audience just seems uncontrolled on paper.

This snow job should shake the devotion of even Gray's most steadfast fans.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374525231
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 9/30/1997
  • Pages: 105
  • Sales rank: 1,432,150
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.27 (d)

Interviews & Essays

On September 24, 1997, welcomed Spalding Gray, America's premier monologuist. A writer, actor, performer, and storyteller, "Spald" is a humorist who knows no boundaries. He has appeared in numerous films, including "The Killing Fields" and most recently "Gray's Anatomy." His latest book is IT'S A SLIPPERY SLOPE.

JainBN: Welcome, Mr. Gray, and thanks so much for joining us this evening!

Spalding Gray: Thanks.

JainBN: Here's our first audience question.

Question: I saw you perform "It's a Slippery Slope" live and enjoyed it very much. Do you edit and add to your monologues as you perform them? Are they always a work in progress until they are published?

Spalding Gray: They're always a work in progress, always. They are never prewritten. There's a basic outline to help me guide myself through the narrative, which is my life, but basically I'm describing a memory-film, and I evolve it in front of the audience, so that there is never anything written before that except for the outline. So, in a sense, it's a dialogue.The publication of the book might come after three years of performing. So, one could also think of it as three years of rewrites that I'm getting paid for.

Question: Do you ever become too self-conscious or too self-critical as a result of your unique art?

Spalding Gray: I've always thought of self-consciousness as a virtue for my art. I try not to think of self-consciousness in the pejorative. All artists are self-conscious if they're working from themselves. The only time it gets in the way is when you make a story out of your life before you feel or enjoy it.

Question: Do you enjoy playing off other actors more or less than performing monologues?

Spalding Gray: It's a nice break to be an actor in a film, and work off, in a collaborative way, the other actors and the director. That's only a diversion. There's nothing more fulfilling than speaking directly to a theater filled with 1,000 people about living in this world. It's really everyone's story.

Question: You have played a lot of fascinating, intriguing character roles. Which role did you find the most interesting?

Spalding Gray: I'm not aware of having played a lot of fascinating, intriguing character roles. I'm glad you are. But two come to mind right now, Mr. Mungo in Stephen Soderbergh's film "King of the Hill." And the stage manager in the last Broadway production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." Those are both memorable experiences as an actor. Also I had a lot of fun appearing in David Byrne's film "True Stories." As a director, he gave me so much freedom to do anything I wanted, and I liked that.

Question: Do you write with the idea of finding some universal elements the audience can relate to, or do you merely recount your own experiences with the philosophy that within each man is every man?

Spalding Gray: Well, I don't like to think of it as merely, but it's the latter. I "write" oral composition, I speak-write for a number of reasons. One of them is to figure out what's going on by talking about it, and I suspect another one, because I'm sure I never will live another life, is to live again, is to reincarnate myself, now. I've jokingly said that you have to live a life to have a story about it, and I prefer the story to the life. Because it's always a triumph over chaos. And I have to add one quote, "Life is stronger than love."

Question: How do you feel about the attempts to cut back the National Endowment for the Arts funds, and what can we do to make Congress realize how vital the arts are to each of us?

Spalding Gray: This is a good question. All the time I'm sitting here in my house in Sag Harbor I'm wondering what I can do -- about the building of the new Sea Wolf, the B-2 bomber, and a list of obscene defense spendings. We all know the obscene truth that more money is spent on military marching bands than for the arts. What can we do?

Question: Good evening, Mr. Gray. I love your work. I'm wondering if you're finding this online chat a little surreal?

Spalding Gray: Absolutely. But it's definitely slowing me down. It makes me feel like a poet. But it's a novel experience to me, because I don't even type.

Question: In what way is the recognition of your mortality erotic for you?

Spalding Gray: It is. I'm trying to think in what way.... I was, for years, very promiscuous, and didn't know why and didn't care. Then, I made someone pregnant, and I had my first child with her, and now we have another one, and I was absolutely surprised to find out how commonly human I am, that men have a biological clock, that the promiscuity is a very ancient DNA programming for spreading my seed around. After the birth of my second son, my sexual energies declined, in a good way. I don't feel overheated anymore. Now, I enjoy sex for sex, and I only think about death 75% of the time.

Question: What was your last perfect moment? Did you abandon it immediately (to avoid spoiling it)?

Spalding Gray: My last perfect moment was three hours ago. When Kathie returned from the city with Cotheo in her arms, my eighth-month-old son in her arms, and he recognized me and was glad to see me. I abandoned it immediately in order to drive home, things are very practical now, but I couldn't stop looking over my right shoulder at his face in the carseat behind me, and Kathie said, "Why didn't you let me drive, so you could look at him instead of the road."

Question: How has your experience of fatherhood affected the way you work and the way others perceive and work with you? I can hear Elizabeth La Compte shouting, "Everyone, Spalding's had an epiphany. Scrap the lighting design!"

Spalding Gray: You obviously don't know Elizabeth La Compte. In our later years of working together, she was royally annoyed with me and spoke to me through the other performers, "Would you please tell him to pick up his prop?" Fatherhood has changed me in too many ways to talk about in this brief time. The new monologue I am working on is called "Morning, Noon, and Night," and it's one day in my life, our life, the five of us, because we are a family of five, three children and two adults; this I hope will be a lot about, among other things, fatherhood. But the most powerful effect it's had on me is to allow me to at last respond to someone else's needs without feeling put upon or claustrophobic. My nurturing voice had not surfaced for 52 years. And when the children allowed it to come to life, I sounded at first like a foreigner. Now, they are like necessary anchors to keep me on the earth.

Question: How do you see your work evolving in the next decade and beyond as your children grow old enough to develop an awareness of your work?

Spalding Gray: This is a good question, that I don't allow myself to think about. I worry, sometimes, that if I tell the story too well, about all of us, the family being together, I will turn my sons into characters before they're people of their own. So, I'm trying to be very careful with this, to make boundaries of what can be kept private, and what's a good story to tell publicly. Part of me would like to retire and just raise the family, or be like the "at home" Dad. I really do feel less need for an audience. A family of five is magnificent in-house theater. After dinner tonight, I stayed home with the children while Kathie went out to a PTA meeting, and Marissa, my stepdaughter, put on her CD of the Spice Girls and everyone danced. Marissa, Forrest, and Theo crawling in amongst them. I sat out. For me, it was the best theater I'd seen in years, but I would never dream of staging it for anyone else.

Question: What's the difference between skiing and performing?

Spalding Gray: Well, skiing was the first completely involved activity I ever did without craving an audience. This is something I enjoy doing with people, or alone. Any exterior audience-type attention would make me feel awkward and self-conscious. This was truly new for me. Performing is a hugely social event for me, and it calls up a completely different persona -- the persona of Spalding Gray the performer. Spalding Gray the skier is a completely different guy and I love that. One of my recent anxieties has been that once I tell a story about something that I've done or has happened to me, I have fulfilled it in a way that will stop me from continuing my relationship to it. This, of course, threatens my relationship not only to skiing, but to my entire relationship to my family. So, in order to reestablish my connection with skiing, I have made plans and arrangements to ski more this year than any year before, and it sounds odd, but I am nervous about that, because I fear that if I am not using it to prepare for a narrative story, I won't be able to connect with it in a full way. Time will tell. The question is, Am I able to fully enjoy a private act?

Question: What are you still afraid to write about and share?

Spalding Gray: Lots of things. But not that many.

Question: What do you do to stop writing in your head?

Spalding Gray: Skiing, sex, and the children at the height of their morning chaos. The first two are chosen. The third is thrust upon me.

Question: Where is Ramona today?

Spalding Gray: This is a good question, I'd like to know. We haven't spoken in over a year; her choice. She needed to have her own life, to get out from under my shadow, which, because, like tonight, it's mediated, it seems, I'm sure in her mind, to seek her out. She must feel I'm like a stalker. I'd love to hear from her, but I'm sure she needs time to make a life of her own.

Question: On what occasions were you most true and untrue to yourself?

Spalding Gray: At the same time? I think that the monologue "It's a Slippery Slope" is a very good description of being both true and untrue to myself at the same time; it's confessions of a Gemini.

Question: You don't seem to do many big publicity things.... Why did you pick Lexus and Virgin Atlantic Airways to endorse?

Spalding Gray: I have only endorsed Virgin Atlantic, and that was my virgin endorsement. I have no idea where you ever got Lexus from. The reason I went with Virgin was that the vice president took two ferries from New London, CT, to visit my home here in Sag Harbor, along with the writer of the text, and at that meeting he convinced me that this would be artistically and tastefully done. He also told me that I had to fly to London and back on Virgin Air in upper-class and promised that they would fill the center fuel tank on that 747 for that flight. I liked his sense of humor. And I'm happy with the commercial. What a surprise.

Question: I read somewhere that you call yourself a "poetic journalist"? Can you explain what you mean by that?

Spalding Gray: That I report on my life, but after I've sat with it for a while. That time creates a natural filter system that breeds metaphor.

JainBN: This will be our last question for Mr. Gray.

Question: You are a writer, a performer, an actor -- how would you describe your job?

Spalding Gray: When I first performed my first monologue, "Sex and Death to the Age 14," it was in the Performing Garage in 1979 in downtown Manhattan. There were maybe 18 people there, and they were all hanging out afterwards, and I was surprised to see a little 10-year-old girl there. And I said, "What are you doing here tonight?" And she said, "My dad said I had to come see the talking man." And that was the best definition I'd ever heard of what I do.

JainBN: Thanks so much for joining us tonight, and please come back!

Spalding Gray: Thank you.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2002

    goot book yah

    twas a very good book. I myself was sitting aperch a very large boulder, in buttless monkey leather chaps, and couldnt take my eyes off it. I laughed and laughed like a japanese school girl, and didnt wonder why people stared. Mil gracias to my dear Ernest Borgnine for this wonderful gift. He should be reading this book, and so should you.

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