Reviewed by Renée E. D’Aoust
Chloe Caldwell's essays in Legs Get Led Astray get under your skin in the best possible way. The title is taken from the opening epigraph by Will Sheff, of Okkervil River: "Their legs get led astray and then they lie in some secret place."
Those secret places are the corporeal locations Caldwell takes us; the title signifies the multivalent directions of her glistening prose. By exuberantly embracing her life, Caldwell invites the reader inside her emotions, experiences, memories, and reflections. She encourages the reader to enter her body. Her writing is a celebration of life, not a dissection. That difference is a relief. Caldwell lives without apology. It makes her collection stand apart from those that might be read as more traditional coming-of-age stories.
Billed as essays, I read these as interlacing mini-memoirs. But before you are turned off by my use of the word "memoir," there is no navel gazing here. No sob story. What we have is a raucous romp:
Masturbated at The Poet's House this past spring in New York City. Large windows. Sunshine. Over looked Rockefeller Park and the East River. Books. Words turn me on. White turns me on. Windows turn me on. I like masturbating in clean, white, wordy places.
Caldwell smashes up against her life without apology, drinking, sexing, and drugging with fantastic abandon. All borders and boundaries are subject to be broken, not because she lacks character but because she possesses courage. Seeking love, not approval, she reads her mother's journals and her lover's journals, she sleeps with a man and uses his girlfriend's carrot lotion, yet all her rambunctiousness is infused with the sweetness that underlies a beating heart.
Yet at first it seems she's only into the veneer of life; for example, she moves to New York City not to pursue a dream, not at first anyway, but because of her brother and his scene. She becomes involved with her brother's friend Luke because she wants to be him, to inhabit him. Despite the lure of her brother's friends, she gradually becomes her own person, discovering through her lover Luke's suicide that her heart is stronger than she realized. Her heart sustains her as she accumulates life-altering, masturbatory, and surreal experiences that make holistic sense only when she starts to write them down. The city becomes the locus of her sexuality, which in turn becomes the locus of her writing. The city and its people set the course for her writing life.
That journey is the connective tissue of Legs Get Led Astray. Her keen observations and unfailing honesty make Caldwell a writer's writer: "Truthful words moved me. Choked me up. I cried each time I read a new entry. In my gut I always knew I wanted to be a writer. But sometimes it takes people a long time to admit the truest things about themselves." Her observations of New York also resonate.
On the L Train I often end up in the same car as the saxophone alien. He says, "Greetings Earthlings," in a mock robotic voice and then he announces that he will play his saxophone obnoxiously in our faces until we give him money to stop.
Those who haven't lived in the Big Apple may find her descriptions romantic; however, those who have lived there will cringe in recognition of the drab reality while they also long for the youthful camaraderie the city unfailingly inspires.
Sometimes the timing of events and the reasons behind them are confusing. I do not need a linear chronology but a few more place markers would help the reader navigate these essays and the staccato transitions between them. For example, unless I missed it, I don't understand why Caldwell leaves New York and moves to Seattle, although the babysitting essay and her cool eye on her West Coast employers—those unhappy, spoiled, and all-too-recognizable trust fund wives and helicopter moms—are not to be missed:
One mom came home, lay down on the floor, and told me she was wasted. She asked me about myself. "You moved here from New York? You're so adaptable!" she said. "You've done more than I've done in my whole life! Do you blog about it?" The moms tell me they were in my position not too long ago... The moms usually overpaid me. The moms had thousand-dollar laundry chutes.
There's no way that these women "were in [Caldwells'] position not too long ago." These kinds of moms, more concerned with their weight than their families, don't listen to their sons. But Caldwell listens to the boy creatures she babysits, and though she is a self-confessed bad babysitter, these little boys love her. Because she's honest. She's fun. Caldwell is reggae all the way, all heart, all experience:
I felt a moment of shock and then promptly keeled over in tears.
The other girls yelled what she yelled. It was dark now. A breeze. Goosebumps on every inch of my body. Teen girl voices in different pitches filling up the field with I love yous. They were excited and emotional and they were breaking my heart in half.
"You're beautiful!" another girl yelled.
Caldwell moves far beyond looking for a man to inhabit, becoming, through writing, through insatiable living, her own person. Plus her mom is way cool and super wonderful, so she has wise guidance and counsel. I love reading how deeply Caldwell adores her mom; her mom becomes the other heroine of this collection. At one point, her mom says something that sounded very much like something my mom would have said: "My mother told me I was "high as a kite" one day after school, while I stood at the kitchen counter babbling about high school and eating Stoned Wheat Thins, and she asked me if I could "please not get so stoned after school."
It's this familiarity that makes Caldwell's collection of essays a romp, a page-turner. Ordinary life—you know, sex, drugs, poetry—is made palpable. Caldwell is a seductive date. She invites you to share her life; this openness makes you want to share your own.
Legs Get Led Astray reminded me just how sweet it was to walk home to West 51st from a KGB Bar reading by Colette Inez instead of taking the "N" train, because I had only twenty-five bucks to last two weeks. Caldwell reminded me that I used to steal toilet paper from hotels, during a particularly low period when I also procured little packets of cream and sugar from diners (long before Starbucks invaded Manhattan). She reminded me how in flush times, I would give a twenty to Mike, the crack addict on the corner, because he promised he would buy food (back before Hell's Kitchen was gentrified and Mike relocated uptown). Throughout my time in NYC, I was a volunteer usher at the Joyce Theater in exchange for attending dance performances there for free. I imagine Caldwell as one of my fellow ushers, both of us dressed in black jeans and a black T-shirt, and I imagine us holding hands as we stand at the back of the theater, watching Ronald K. Brown's latest piece vibrate our hearts. And then I imagine asking Chloe out for a drink—my treat.