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.
A FIELD GUIDE
TO AWKWARD SILENCES
By Alexandra Petri
New American Library. 309 pp. $25.95