"A Field Guide to Awkward Silences" by Alexandra Petri. (NAL)

Usually when people tell you they had an awkward adolescence, they’re exaggerating to make themselves relatable. (See: interviews with supermodels.) But Alexandra Petri, a Washington Post columnist, was — and continues to be — supremely, cringingly, legitimately weird. In her new collection of comic essays, “A Field Guide to Awkward Silences,” she reveals that as a teen she was so obsessed with Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that she would impersonate him in AOL chat rooms. When people asked for her age/sex/location, as was the custom, she’d type, “RELee: 61, but vigorous/M/The Maryland countryside, astride my loyal horse, Traveller.” One of her most prized possessions is a ceramic serving plate on which the “Star Wars” robot C-3PO “reclines sensually.” She tried to name the family dog “tape recorder.”

Such singular, bizarre details make Petri’s bumbling coming-of-age stories stand out from the pack of humorous memoirs. I laughed out loud at lines such as this one, from her essay about a whistling convention: “I like whistling the same way I like farting: I enjoy doing it myself, but I don’t get any particular pleasure when other people do it around me.” Another standout line comes from a short essay about accidentally and very briefly joining a cult. She recounts telling her mother about how it happened. Her mother panics because Petri is “her sole reproductive investment” and this story makes her sound as if she’s “just a few brain cells short of being sexually attracted to fire.”

There are a few missteps: A listicle about a fantasy “Time Traveler’s Yelp” sounds funnier in theory than in execution, and there are times when Petri uses humor to avoid engaging at a deeper emotional level.

But that occasional sidestepping is of a piece with her persona. After all, Petri is someone who preferred to make a casual suitor dump her instead of telling him she didn’t want to see him anymore. This involved stealing a plunger from the bathroom at a Haagen-Dazs shop to make herself seem crazy. Yes, it might have been easier just to tell the poor sap the truth, but Petri’s way is a lot more fun — especially for the reader.

Grose is the author of “Sad Desk Salad.” Her second novel, “The Closest Marriage,” will be published next year.


By Alexandra Petri

New American Library. 309 pp. $25.95