Too Good to Be True: A Memoir

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Overview

When he was three, in the early 1970s, Benjamin Anastas found himself in his mother’s fringe-therapy group in Massachusetts, a sign around his neck: Too Good to Be True. The phrase haunted him through his life, even as he found the literary acclaim he sought after his 1999 novel, An Underachiever’s Diary, had made the smart set take notice. Too Good to Be True is his deeply moving memoir of fathers and sons, crushing debt and ...

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Overview

When he was three, in the early 1970s, Benjamin Anastas found himself in his mother’s fringe-therapy group in Massachusetts, a sign around his neck: Too Good to Be True. The phrase haunted him through his life, even as he found the literary acclaim he sought after his 1999 novel, An Underachiever’s Diary, had made the smart set take notice. Too Good to Be True is his deeply moving memoir of fathers and sons, crushing debt and infidelity—and the first, cautious steps taken toward piecing a life back together.
 
“It took a long time for me to admit I had failed,” Anastas begins. Broke, his promising literary career evaporated, he’s hounded by debt collectors as he tries to repair a life ripped apart by the spectacular implosion of his marriage, which ended when his pregnant wife left him for another man. Had it all been too good to be true? Anastas’s fierce love for his young son forces him to confront his own childhood, fraught with mental illness and divorce. His father’s disdain for money might have been in line with the ’70s zeitgeist—but what does it mean when you’re dumping change into a Coinstar machine, trying to scrounge enough to buy your son a meal? Charged with rage and despair, humor and hope, this unforgettable book is about losing one’s way and finding it again, and the redemptive power of art.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Dwight Garner
Mr. Anastas's memoir is about having and losing it all, in both literature and life, and it is so plaintive and raw that most writers (and many readers) will finish it with heart palpitations…What pushes Too Good to Be True over the top and makes it more than just a precious lament by a writer who made it much further than most ever will, is Mr. Anastas's intense and timely writing about money. More specifically, his writing about what it is like to have almost none at all and to be vertiginously in debt…The bulk of Too Good to Be True…is smart and honest and searching…
The New York Times Book Review - Deb Olin Unferth
It's all very funny and a joy to read, but what lifts this memoir from good to outstanding is that the humor and the darkness are merely a patina. Under the irony there is no irony. Under the panic lies a remorseful heart, a fierce hope, a steady determination to figure this out and become a better person—for the sake of his son and his own future.
The Washington Post - Michael Lindgren
This prickly, often bleakly beautiful personal history from '90s It-novelist gone astray Benjamin Anastas is like a Rorschach test for readers of memoir. Those with a predilection for the genre will be rewarded with a harrowing psychological journey out of despair and into a fragile peace. Less forbearing readers may find Anastas's account of his travails shrill and self-pitying, and might feel the urge to throw the book, or perhaps even its author, down a stairwell. No one will be able to deny, however, that Too Good to Be True has a messy urgency and a distinctive voice all its own.
Publishers Weekly
A well-written, if overly polished tale by a writer stalled in mid-career finds thin, occasional sneers in anecdotes about being broke, cheating on his fiancée, and wondering what his new girlfriend sees in him. Anastas (The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance) was one of those lucky authors who, 10 years ago, enjoyed being able to say the words “final round of bidding on my novel” for a reputable publishing house and celebrate the book’s publication (The Underachiever’s Diary), though briefly, before it sank into oblivion. He also had to endure hearing his agent murmur, “I had much higher hopes for you,” when Anastas couldn’t produce, as well as face being unable to provide for his young son, Primo, from his first failed marriage, and to reassure new girlfriend Eliza that he was really trying to help pay the rent for the Brooklyn apartment they were sharing. The author initially appears self-pitying, mystified by his inability to earn money as a well-educated published author, reduced to scrounging for coins in order to entertain his son, and somewhat comfortably accustomed to his role of getting kicked around by creditors, ex-wife, therapists, even the new boyfriend of his ex, called the Nominee (for a Major Literary Award, no less). At times the author can come across as insincere, but he does redeem himself with a closing poignant letter of promise addressed to his son (“you”). (Oct.)
From the Publisher
“A miasma of misfortune… the author’s many battles have wrung from him both catharsis and poignancy… [a] raw yet eloquent presentation of a life in crisis mode.” —Kirkus

“The failure is real, the voice is raw, the story is haunting.” —Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom

“It’s all very funny and a joy to read, but what lifts this memoir from good to outstanding is that the humor and the darkness are merely a patina. Under the irony there is no irony. Under the panic lies a remorseful heart, a steady determination to figure this out and become a better person.” New York Times Book Review

Too Good to Be True is smart and honest and searching…so plaintive and raw that most writers (and many readers) will finish it with heart palpitations." —Dwight Garner, New York Times

“Scenes of a ’70s childhood, complete with pot-smoking parents and ‘a lot of adult nudity’ yield unexpected sweetness and humor in a book that’s often searingly painful.” — Boston Globe

“Self-pity has never been so bracing—or hilarious.” —Town & Country

“Anastas has written one of the most memorable memoirs we've read all year.” —Sarah Weinman, Publishers Lunch

“A spectacular account of mind-blowing failure. It is short and it is beautiful and you must buy it.” —Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story

“‘Enjoyed’ is the wrong word for this book. You don't enjoy eating a bag of glass shards mixed in with bloody pulpy bits of a human heart. Enjoyment, in this case, is irrelevant —I devoured this book not in spite of the pain, but because of it. This is a messy, vital, non-story of a story. I finished it and felt covered in the debris of a life.—Charles Yu, author of How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

“I love this book so much. Which is weird, considering that it consists of watching Anastas take blow after blow, before being battered and receiving more blows. But you won’t pity the author, who leans into even the most difficult situations with wonder and boundless empathy; instead you’ll just wish he could narrate your own disasters to you, so you could see the art in the salvage.” —Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances

“A lot of books get called things like ‘brutally honest,’ but few books are really as brutal as Too Good to Be True. Benjamin Anastas has taken disheartening failure and turned it into searing, soaring success.” —Daniel Handler, author of Why We Broke Up

“In this taut memoir, Anastas writes about his admittedly colossal failures and the myriad indignities of poverty, such as what it feels like to be pursued at all hours by debt collectors or having to pay tribute to a Coinstar machine just to buy food for your son. The train wreck (and it is a grisly one) isn’t the only compelling thing here, however, since Anastas can craft a world-class sentence.” The Daily Beast, “Hot Reads”

Listed in O, The Oprah Magazine The Reading Room’s “10 Titles to Pick Up Now” — November 2012, O, The Oprah Magazine

Featured in Vogue.com’s “Fall’s Best Memoirs”

Featured in TIME Magazine’s “Fall Reading”

Library Journal
The author of novels like An Underachiever's Diary that should be better known, Anastas was broke and frustrated when his pregnant wife left him for another man. This is an account of how he fought to maintain a relationship with his son—especially important because his own childhood was so fractured. (What can you say about a mom who lets her nutty therapy group hang a sign around her three-year-old's neck proclaiming, "Too Good To Be True"?) Expect something different—but nakedly there.
Kirkus Reviews
A miasma of misfortune hobbles a successful author's life and livelihood. There was a time when Anastas (The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor's Disappearance, 2001, etc.) was riding high on the success of his 1998 novel, An Underachiever's Diary. But his memoir isn't about happy days, since things took a nasty turn for the worse. As a broke 41-year-old, he was drowning in debt while sharing his Brooklyn apartment with live-in girlfriend Eliza, who, while overwhelmingly sympathetic, found herself running out of patience. The depth of Anastas' desperation materializes in chapters like "Coinstar," in which he discusses converting loose change at the local "Bank of Desperate Times" to buy food for his shared-custody son's visits. Anastas is admirably frank and honest about the depressing details of his floundering literary career and the antagonistic dissolution of his marriage after mutual indiscretions (he had an international fling with another writer; she left him for another man while pregnant with their son). The author affords readers a glimpse into an unconventional childhood watched over by a loose-cannon father and a depressive, therapy-dependent mother, who came out as lesbian when the author was a teenager. However, the headliner here is his more recent conundrum, which he conveys with an exacting eye for detail and a healthy dose of browbeaten exasperation. Eventually circumstances improved, and the author's many battles have wrung from him both catharsis and poignancy. The raw yet eloquent presentation of a life in crisis mode.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547913995
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/16/2012
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 504,151
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Benjamin Anastas is the author of two novels, An Underachiever’s Diary (1999) (hailed by Very Short List as "the funniest, most underappreciated book of the 1990s" on the occasion of its 2009 reprint) and The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance (2001), a New York Times notable book, which Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) called "hands down, the best novel of the year." He’s published articles in the New York Times Magazine , Harper’s , Granta , and elsewhere, and received the 2005 Smart Family Fiction Prize from The Yale Review. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Lannan Foundation. He teaches creative writing at Columbia University and the Bennington Writing Seminars.

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Read an Excerpt

At the Church Doors

It took a long time for me to admit that I had failed. Even as I write this, I can feel the old machinery kicking in and sputtering, “Yeah, but you still have time—” or “Don’t worry, things will turn around—” or that old dependable excuse trotted out by the teenager in all of us: “The world just won’t understand me.” But I’ve stopped listening to my own excuses. I have reached the point in life where I no longer accept false hopes, the palliative care of counterfeit wisdom. Part of this is courage; even more is necessity. When you have failed like I have—that is, when you’ve watched all of your best-laid plans, one by one, fly off on their own like crazed songbirds and peel off in long, lovely arcs into the nearest picture window—then you’ll understand how I ended up, one raw autumn day not too long ago, standing outside a church in Brooklyn with my hands pressed against the doors so I could pray. In broad daylight, arms spread like I was being frisked from behind, head bowed and murmuring pleas for help to a divine power I wasn’t even sure that I believed in. A stalled career would be enough to get you there; I had that. A failed marriage; I had one of those too—the story of its undoing was so high-drama that I should have been a sultry Argentine in a terry cloth robe, pacing my penthouse and arguing with a pre-op transsexual starlet on my product-placed mobile. The will to go on; it’s not that I had lost it—no, I have never lost that, and I hope I never do—but everything I had worked for was vanishing and my losses were mounting and I was in need. I was in need. It’s that simple.
   So I found myself at the doors of the church nearest to where I live with my hands pressed against the cold exterior, asking, Lord, I need Your help, show me a way out of this, while a bus groaned up the street behind me and the sky threatened to spit rain, or an early snow, and my hands turned white from the cold. Nothing. I heard nothing. Just the bus. Failure thrumming in my ears. So I asked again: Please, Lord, I need Your help. I am lost. My life is broken. Nothing works. Can You hear me? Nothing I try is working, and again I heard no reply, only the farting of hydraulics as the bus receded down the street. I didn’t stay there much longer. It was too cold. I opened my eyes, lifted my hands from the door, and plunged my fists in the pockets of my coat to warm them up. I turned and walked away. That’s where this testament begins: if you’ve failed all the way up to the heavens, like I did that day, after failing in every way possible here on earth, then truth is the only medicine that you will tolerate. Because the truth is what you need.

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Table of Contents

At the Church Door 1
Going Broke 5
The Real Life of an Author 19
Coinstar 49
Divorce Counseling 63
A Disturbance of Memory at the Brooklyn Flea 73
Too Good to Be True 83
One Beehive in Nicaragua 105
At the Wheel of the Haunted Sedan 125
Not This Guy 143
Unpaid Bills 153
Old Friends 157
The Tower Where I Work 167

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2012

    When the author tells us that he dashed this off in the extra ti

    When the author tells us that he dashed this off in the extra time he had sitting in his kid's room in the early am, believe it. Wow, what a majorly amateurish effort. From the first page-reproduced above-it's filled with cliches ("Please, Lord, I need Your help. I am lost. My life is broken." Please Lord, I said, let this stop). He blames everybody else for his problems. He moans about losing his wife (he talks about her as if she were a piece of property) but portrays her as a histrionic jerk. Her new boyfriend gets a special drubbing. He changes their names but makes sure to leave clues so you can figure out who they are: cute. He talks-endlessly talks-about how poor he is, but he doesn't seem very poor. He lives in a great apartment. His new girlfriend's biggest complaint is that they don't have a headboard for their bed...maybe they have one in their country house in the Adirondacks (He always seems to be traveling). He takes all those calls from collection agencies on a brand new iPhone. I was disgusted by the self indulgence on display here. Everybody comes off as a jerk, but the biggest jerk is the author. I feel sorry for his poor son when he has to read this.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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