More particularly, Lamott wasn’t ready for her son, Sam, a 19-year-old art student, to take on the sleepless nights, money worries and never-ending responsibility of fatherhood. “I’d always looked forward with enthusiasm to becoming a grandmother someday, in, say, ten years from now, perhaps after he had graduated from the art academy . . . and when I was old enough to be a grandmother.”
But when Sam and his girlfriend, Amy, have a baby, Lamott discovers the third great love of her life, “along with Sam and Jesus”: baby Jax.
“Operating Instructions” turned Lamott into one of the most famous single moms in America in the 1990s, but she’s terrified that teenage parenthood will ruin Sam’s life and even more terrified that Amy will take Jax back to her family in Chicago. Because the young parents start talking about splitting up when Jax is just 10 days old, Chicago looks like a more and more likely destination. The relationship stress is especially difficult to watch for Lamott, who offers free babysitting, free movie tickets, free steak dinners and perhaps too much free advice. (Both sets of grandparents are essentially supporting the new mom and dad, because Sam is still in college and Amy, who has a cosmetology degree, is unemployed.)
Lamott says that “the job of a good parent is to be dispensable,” and much of the memoir follows her learning to pull back. “I wanted to go into San Francisco and be Big Mama to Amy, plus God, the Bank, and a Molly Maid.”
The parallels between her and Sam’s forays into parenthood are striking for Lamott: “I had done this semi-insane thing, having a child at an extra-stressful age in life, with no money. . . . Also, there was no father around.” There is the key difference: Sam is determined to stay in Jax’s life.
“Some Assembly Required” follows the same basic format of 20 years earlier, with occasional e-mails from Amy and entries from Sam. (The couple has separated, Lamott has said in interviews.) For longtime readers, the number of people missing from the “informal co-op” that helped get Sam launched in the world is especially poignant. His adoptive grandmother, Gertrud, dies in the months before Jax’s birth, and his great-uncle Millard in the months after. This is a kindly book, full of Lamott’s trademark neurotic spirituality, and it’s one Lamott’s fans will want, because they’ve watched Sam grow up through her memoirs and her column in Salon.
But there’s a reason that the Web isn’t overrun with grandmommy blogs. Grandparents, as Lamott puts it, “are soft-focus”: Everything, except the love, is experienced from a remove. Fortunately, Lamott is too funny a writer to end up in Mary Engelbreit territory. “We all like him again and have decided to renew his lease,” she writes of Jax after a bout of fussiness.
In the parts of “Some Assembly Required” that Sam writes, he can pull off neurotic one-liners reminiscent of his mother. When the remnant of Jax’s umbilical cord falls off, for instance, the young father panics that his baby’s innards are about to spill out. “I’ve caught him red-handed — he has clawed open his stomach. Plus it’s all our fault because we didn’t clip his nails.”
The “interviews” between him and his mother, though, are too generalized to leave much of an impact on a reader, beyond genuine well-wishes. Lamott has also changed a number of entries at the request of Amy and her parents, and this blurring effect is evident.
But so is the overwhelming love she feels for little Jax and the eagerness with which she embraces her new role as Nana. “All the grandparents I know have glommed on to the grandchildren, like barnacles with credit cards, and yellow rubber gloves for doing their dishes. And it is good.”
In a foreword, Sam says that “Operating Instructions” remains “the greatest gift anyone has given me” and that he wanted his son to have a book of his own. In that analysis, “Some Assembly Required” works just fine.
Zipp regularly reviews books for The Post and the Christian Science Monitor.
On Thursday, Anne Lamott will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-364-1919.