Bookstores are full of books by sit-com stars, laughter-and-tears memoirs and volumes of transcribed routines. Walk into any of the big chain stores and you'll see Brett Butler's wonderful memoir,
Knee Deep in Paradise, next to the books by Fran, Ellen, Jerry, Paul and Kelsey. If stores had the good taste and decency to separate books by sensibility, Butler would fit right next to writers like Lee Smith and William Price Fox, Southerners whose emotions go a mile deep and who remain tough and funny in very dark circumstances.
The meat of the book is Butler's story of growing up independent, feisty and, eventually, drunk as the daughter of a divorced (i.e., disgraced) woman in the South of the '60s and '70s. She relates how she came to know -- posthumously -- the father she saw for the last time when she was four, who, she discovered later, spent his life hiding out in a back room of his mother's house, drinking and reading. After his death, Butler received his unintended legacy to her: eight UPS boxes full of books, notebooks and magazines, nearly everything heavily annotated, finally spelling out a picture of the man she'd long wondered about and allowing her to make connections to her own sensibility.
In her stand-up routines, Butler (like Richard Pryor) is one of those rare comics who speak from experience rather than a manufactured persona. There's nothing pre-fabricated here about what could have been standard show-biz fodder: her battles with booze and dope, and her three years as an abused wife. Butler even manages compassion -- and not condescending compassion -- for the ex who did things like hold a gun to her head while he forced her to flush her wedding ring down the toilet. And she's startlingly honest about her role in the relationship. Here she is on what drove her to leave: "He was taking a nap on the couch and I was cleaning up the kitchen. I was looking under the sink for something and saw a pipe wrench. . . I picked up the wrench and started to swing it like a bat. . . One of the greatest feelings in the world is to hear the crack of a well-hit ball against a bat. I wanted to feel it again." Butler may be another celeb writing a bio, but there's no doubt she's a writer. --
A memoir from the star of TV's
Grace Under Fire. (Apr.)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Most women like you, with a past like yours, would have ended up as a clerk at Woolworth's," a therapist once told Butler, the stand-up comic and star of the televison show
Grace Under Fire. And while Butler was understandably outraged, it's easy to see what that astonished analyst meant. This tell-all-and-then-tell-some- more memoir stands out in its genre both for its frankness and for the awfulness of Butler's early life. Her father, an alcoholic, disappeared early. Butler grew up fast, living with her mother and four sisters in a succession of southern towns. She sampled drugs and started using alcohol as an adolescent, tried college and gave up, then slipped into an abusive marriage. She's unsparing in describing the duplicities of the alcoholic, but curiously, she's less persuasive in talking about how comedy helped her tap into something essential and restorative, or in probing the sources of her creativity. By contrast with what's come before, her descriptions of her growing success (the book ends before the launching of her series) seem flat and rushed, cluttered with names. Still, a better-than-average entry in the genre, best for its vividly rendered early scenes.