Book Review: Based on a True Story: A Memoir
I have long been a fan of comedian Norm Macdonald, but it was not until a few years ago that I knew he could write. A product of the Canadian education system, he was literate, of course, but his public persona suggested to me that he might not have much use for or facility with the written word. Norm disabused me of that false notion nearly four years ago, however, when his first article appeared on Bill Simmons’ late website, Grantland. Macdonald’s tenure with that site was, by funded internet website standards, brief, consisting roughly of the first four weeks of 2013. In that time, he wrote six articles: two on golf, one on hockey, and three volumes in an aborted series entitled “Norm Macdonald’s Keeping Resolutions.” My favorite of the lot was the hockey article. When it was published, right after the latest NHL lockout ended, I wrote:
Norm Macdonald’s latest article is a short story in two parts– two short stories, really– with some light humor, of course, but more compellingly, real, emotional, suspenseful, rising action conveyed in absolutely compelling fashion with two lovely turns of phrase, one for each part.
The “Resolutions” series was a first-person, semi-autobiographical story about sports gambling and a trip through the Nevada desert with Norm’s real-life friend, Adam Eget, “sober now for over a year but nonetheless still somewhat interesting.”
Constituting the largest body of his published writing until now, Macdonald’s Grantland articles, presented with little fanfare at the time and seemingly little remembered now, provide more than a little foreshadowing (and, for the author, source material) for some of the subjects and devices in his 2016 comedic novel, Based on a True Story: A Memoir. Anyone who read Norm’s 2013 articles had no reason to be surprised that he could and would produce such an excellent and wide-ranging piece of literature.
A note on genre classification: Based on a True Story is identified, right there on the cover, as “A Memoir.” Anyone who reads it will recognize it not as a memoir but as a comedic novel written very loosely in the style of a memoir. Most book sellers these days do not read the books they sell before displaying them in their stores, meaning that Macdonald’s book typically appears in the nonfiction section. This misclassification, flowing from a fundamental misunderstanding of the book, seemed to genuinely upset the author, who made it a central subject of his comments in media appearances in support of the book’s release and in his own online comments.
Surprise is an element of comedy, but there is plenty of new ground in Based on a True Story, such that it will truly entertain even the biggest Norm fans. I think it always has been difficult, and, I suspect this is true in today’s media age more than ever, to write a book that will make its readers feel real emotion. Sadness. Laughter especially. Yet Macdonald, with this book, concocts emotional moments alongside real, laugh-out-loud moments, woven through metacontent, 1970s country music, and a sports-gambling-driven journey through the Nevada desert with Adam Eget. This is one of the very few books I ever have wanted to read a second time.
In the foreword, Louis C.K. writes that “a lot of comics over the years have been compared to Mark Twain, but I think Norm is the only one who actually matches the guy in terms of his voice and ability.” With Based on a True Story, Macdonald has provided the comedic novel for a generation.