Reading Anne Lamott’s new book of essays is like sitting down with a girlfriend you haven’t seen for quite a while. At times you’re perfectly in tune: You know this woman; you trust her. But when, out of nowhere, she starts spouting advice like, “Stop the train. Be where your butt is,” you roll your eyes and wonder if perhaps she’s spent too much time obsessing about the Kardashians. Still, you read on.
There’s no denying that Lamott is a superb writer. Her voice is one of a kind: deft, folksy, cheerfully hostile. For 20 years she’s claimed the language of privileged angsty urban women, spinning yarns about our collective career struggles, parenting fears, writing woes and quest for a modern, drive-through spiritual life.
Her new book, “Hallelujah Anyway,” is a slim manual on faith. Much like her 2012 book “Help, Thanks, Wow,” it mixes theology and psychology with personal grievances and life stories. Organized into nine chapter-like essays around a loose concept Lamott calls “mercy,” the book is peppered with cryptic spiritual takeaways like, “Maybe mercy and grace belong together, like cream and sugar.”
But Lamott stretches her theme to the breaking point. For the purpose of this book, mercy is defined and endlessly redefined as both the giving and the receiving of general forgiveness, compassion, kindness, tolerance, understanding, charity and/or acceptance. At one point Lamott writes, “We might call the presence of mercy ‘soul,’ some sort of life principle within, behind, my eyes, that helps me notice things, be sensitive, feel the kick or salve of love.”
I’m sorry. What?
The problem with casting such a wide, vague net is that you can wedge practically anything into it. Stories about childhood trauma, traveling to Japan, Twitter rudeness — they’re all here. Like American cuisine and liberal studies degrees, this all-encompassing mercy becomes bland and dilute.
For such a likable writer, it’s confounding that Lamott’s work is weakest when she speaks like who she is: the self-made leader of a literary cult. Early in “Hallelujah,” Lamott lapses often into a royal “we.” In an essay titled “Life Cycles,” she traces the path of a brainy upper-middle-class kid raised by “parents with big problems” but recites the entire life in a dreamlike first-person plural.
“We developed knowledge of our defects, our self-centeredness, our disagreeable ways, what some might call original sin, and it yapped at us — God forbid, people would find out who we were. We were going to fall or be pushed off the ledge and our underpants were going to show.” What, exactly, is she trying to say?
But around Page 70, just when all seems muddled and brittle and lost, Lamott zings back into Hallelujah with her signature crackling warmth. She is witty and funny and smart. Now the words and stories flow. She is shopping in a place named Zoologie that sounds like a store for people decades younger, but whatever! She’s wonderfully, wretchedly human here, considering an $89 T-shirt, falling for a kitschy gilt-edged map, collapsing in all her wrinkled glory on “the world’s cutest rattan chair” where a sales clerk finds her and revives her with a thimbleful of water. It’s silly and yet sacred, a baptism and a resurrection. And blessedly, it is she: Anne, my old friend. Telling stories so personal even a distant reader can relate.
There are vignettes that explain — finally! — the good Samaritan, the rising of Lazarus, and the Book of Ruth. Never have Bible stories made so much sense.
Then Lamott is helping an elderly woman mourn the death of her son by suicide. “It’s stunning, how a great trauma can also be so ordinary,” she writes, going on to describe the fight the son had waged, “at the mercy of it, of bad brain.” She ends this section with a quiet prayer: “This is hard, but not as hard as it was for you here, weighed down by the anchors of so-called reality. So go now, go, unfettered.” Words so clear and devastating and gorgeous, it’s easy to forget the scramble that came before.
Is Lamott smart enough to have crafted a book that forces us through the steps of mercy, to begin with a jagged, self-involved portrait of herself that grows through the writing toward gentle mercy? Could she have done this daring thing just to prove that each of us has a vast capacity to understand and forgive?
It’s possible. This may be precisely the way crafty, crotchety Anne Lamott would operate, especially in these divisive times. We’re all struggling, everyday sinners, she appears to be saying with “Hallelujah Anyway.” We’re frail and ill-behaved and often unattractive. Relax, my friend. Let’s just cut each other some slack.
Ann Bauer is the author of the novel “Forgiveness 4 You.”
Riverhead. 176 pp. $20