The recent glut of comedy podcasts has obscured that other glut of comedians-talking-about-themselves-outside-of-stand-up outlet: the comedy book. And while we usually need another comedy podcast or book about as much as a well-placed hole in the cranium, any bracing, intelligent, funny entry is always welcome.
San Francisco-bred upstart Moshe Kasher’s Kasher in the Rye is one of those: a briskly-paced, biting memoir of Kasher’s troubled early years. And really, if these sordid events had happened to someone other than Kasher, he would still be a solid choice for a ghost writer. His breathless delivery and sweetly grim material have grabbed a good deal of attention with appearances on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and Chelsea Lately while killing it at festivals and slowing climbing the oily rungs of the Hollywood ladder.
Kasher in the Rye goes a long way toward explaining the appeal of his prickly, no-bullshit stage presence. But while most comedy books are extensions of an act or a persona, Kasher in the Rye is a tale unto itself. In lesser hands it wouldn’t shed much new light on substance abuse, lawlessness and mental instability. In Kasher’s, the memories crackle and spark like a lit firecracker, always threatening to blow his fingers across the room.
The book jacket is careful to note that this is not “an ‘eye opener’ to the horrors of addiction,” but one would be forgiven for gleaning that from the flashy subtitle: The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16. Early on Kasher writes, “You’ll be shocked to realize that a drug-addicted, mentally ill journey of violent insanity is a bit of a hazy cat’s-cradle to untangle,” effectively offering an anti-James Frey disclaimer for the accuracy of the events. It’s not needed. You can’t make most of this shit up, as they say, and wouldn’t want to if you could.
There are no spoilers in going over the basics: Kasher was born to deaf parents, which instantly contributed to his sense of otherness. His mother stole him away from his father to move to Oakland, and at the tender age of four his “feral” behavior landed him in anger-related therapy. He struggled with his family’s Judaism. He adopted a fearless, jokey attitude to get by in Oakland’s brutal public-school system. He stole smokes and ran with kids from broken homes, escaping reality with weed and Everclear and phone sex before moving onto tagging and acid dealing. He got into trouble with cops and landed in more therapy and mental institutions. You get the picture.
It’s no surprise that Kasher was planning to use this material in a one-man show. No doubt it would be as attention-grabbing on stage as in print. Fortunately his facility with spoken language extends to his writing: diving and twisting at key moments, injecting levity into melancholy, all the while nurturing a larger point. He speaks of therapy as a “third parent.” He knows the power of short, punchy sentences, as when he relates a moment at his father’s deathbed, where he offered a speech of atonement: “My affect was frank. My motives were pure. My methods were shit.”
Press materials compare the writing to David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, and the title invokes J.D. Salinger. Kasher’s prose doesn’t always live up to those lofty names, but we’ll throw in one more for good measure: Kurt Vonnegut. The economy of language, the surreal events smacking against the mundane, the undercurrent of humanity to the horror—it’s so deftly rendered that when the book turns serious near the end, the tonal shift feels effortless.
Taken out of context, some lines even have the sublime tang of a Richard Brautigan poem: “Poverty shrank in the face of the anal cat dance,” or, “I’d never been raped and murdered, and it seemed totally unpleasant.” Considered as a whole, they should inspire jealousy and awe in most comics and writers, not just for having so many compelling experiences to relate, but for having fucking lived through them at all.
San Francisco contemporary Louis Katz has called Kasher “kind of gay and ghetto,” and Kasher’s self-aware trashiness pervades some of the book’s best moments. You feel naughty and a bit thrilled, but ultimately sympathetic. You’re granted genuine insight into Kasher’s personality, at once fantastically self-destructive and relatable in its instability. Any half-witted biographer would have an easy time of spinning these tales into a ripping good yarn. In Kasher’s hands, they become a monstrous, thrilling tapestry of darkness and redemption—one that hangs quite nicely next to his current day job.