Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Girl's Guide to Homelessness: More Twenty-something Memoir, Less Account of Homelessness

Brianna Karp has lived a tough life, and she hasn't yet reached thirty. That's the basic idea behind Karp's newly released memoir, The Girl's Guide to Homelessness. I had mixed emotions about this book. First, the good things: Karp has an exceptional voice. She told her story flawlessly, her words perfect, tone measured, story interesting. She kept my interest throughout the book. She told a tale that was by turns shocking and heart-wrenching.

Karp divulges the details of her life thus far, from early childhood days spent tip-toeing around her bipolar mother to teenage jobs working full-time to support her family. She also recounts her formative years spent in the Jehovah's Witness church, which she refers to as "a cult". (In quotations because I personally know nothing about said church's doctrine and therefore cannot make a judgment call on this one. Also, I have known several people in the church who were actually quite nice and not cult-member-like at all.) She discusses her first "real" job making lots of money, and then the inevitable lay-off that occurred when the market took a down-turn. She is strong, and she has overcome much; that is evident in the book.

It would be nice if Karp's was a voice that could stand for the "new" homeless in America -- the homeless we Americans don't like to think about. Not the bum on the street corner muttering to himself, ragged jacket and two Wal-Mart bags slung over his shoulder. Not the toothless prostitute jones-ing for a next hit. But a homeless person who looks more like you or me -- fairly clean-cut, educated, dressed in regular clothes. Just fallen on hard times with no family to fall back on. That is the homelessness Karp wants to epitomize.

My problem is that she doesn't quite meet the mark. She overshoots a bit. Her memoir is finely-written, and she has a lot to say. But to call her the "new voice" of homelessness is a bit of an exaggeration. For one thing, she isn't exactly homeless. She lives in a trailer, although it is in the Wal-Mart parking lot without water and electricity. And she has both a job and other job opportunities, albeit crummy ones. She also has a laptop and a cell phone and receives unemployment benefits whenever she isn't working.

It's not that Karp's situation isn't dire or that I am trying to discount her tale. As I said, she has gone through many terrible things and survived. But to consider herself "homeless" and to call her book The Girl's Guide to Homelessness -- it just seems a bit much. After all, she borrows money at one point to go overseas to visit her fiance, met online via a homeless website. I have personally never been out of the country other than one trip to Mexico; it simply hasn't been within my budget.

Karp's memoir also takes a turn halfway through the book, from memoir about hard times to memoir about her new romance. She makes poor decisions, as many young people do in love. I won't spoil the book for you; it really is a good read. It is just a little more "Brianna Karp's memoir of her life so far" and a little less "girl's guide to homelessness."

Brianna Karp is the author of the blog The Girl's Guide to Homelessness, the predecessor to this memoir.

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