August 2003

Michael Schaub

nonfiction

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People by Toby Young

You can probably tell a lot about a person by knowing at which point during How to Lose Friends and Alienate People he or she started to hate Toby Young. It's actually possible to start hating him by page xxvii of the prologue, which is pretty sad. I mean, most authors wait until the pages with the Arabic numbers to begin alienating their readers. Not Toby. It chronicles his intellectually brave commitment to blockbuster movies and Hollywood glamour, which he has apparently adopted as a reaction to the cultural snobbiness of his peers. Young has constructed an elaborate alternate reality where spending ten bucks to see Bad Boys 2 is an act of ideological revolution. Somehow, the vapid entertainment journalist becomes a contrarian prophet for our times. Whatever.

Not many Americans have heard of Toby Young. Britons haven't been that lucky. Young was a gadfly freelance journalist in London during the late '80s and early '90s. He published The Modern Review, a small magazine about pop culture that lasted only four years, but boasted some excellent contributors (Greil Marcus, Nick Hornby, Will Self). In 1995, he became a contributing editor at Vanity Fair in New York. How to Lose Friends is Young's memoir about the experience, which ended -- unsurprisingly -- very badly.

At any rate, I didn't find myself hating Young until page 120. I was really sort of ambivalent toward him until page 82, when he hires a stripper to come to the Vanity Fair office on Take Our Daughters to Work Day (unintentionally, he claims). At that point, and in the pages after wherein he describes how he's been the victim of "political correctness," I started to dislike him intensely. But on page 120, he mocks a Chilean model (whom he calls a "red hot chile pepper") who is apparently addicted to cocaine. Watch how he renders her speech: "'Oh Toe'ee ... that fu'ing bastar', he reep me off. He sol' me washeen power. ... But I know a guy who live roun' the corner where we can get some really goo' sheet." People from Chile speak with a distinctive South American accent that bears no resemblance to Young's Speedy Gonzalez stereotype. It's not an isolated incident. At one point, he brags about phoning an Asian-American-owned clothing store and asking to order Chinese food. Get it? It's tempting to accuse Young of racism here, but he routinely shrugs off accusations of insensitivity by casting himself as the victim of some fictional PC goon squad. It's his get-out-of-jail-free card, and he uses it throughout the book to defend himself -- unsuccessfully -- from claims of sexism and homophobia.

It's pretty horrible stuff. But if you're still not convinced, How to Lose Friends offers countless chances to hate Young. Hate him for sexually exploiting a teenage immigrant, then leaving her stranded in the cold while he sleeps off a coke binge! Hate him for his gleeful contempt of women and gay men! Hate him for his bitchy complaints about Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter! Hate him for his unreadable rant about the lie of the "American meritocracy"! (As many people have noted, the fact that Young didn't make it in the States might actually prove the existence of an American meritocracy once and for all.)

But everyone's different, and you might not find yourself hating Young until the last pages of the book, when you've realized he has wasted hours of your life in order to convey the most obvious epiphany in modern nonfiction. That's right: After Young finds true love (with his ex-girlfriend's much younger sister), he realizes that maybe the whole Hollywood thing is a little shallow. In his late thirties, Toby Young discovers what most people discover as teenagers, and by that time, the reader's patience has worn out. Was he 21 years old before he realized that there weren't little men in the radio singing into little microphones?

The problem with How to Lose Friends isn't that Toby Young is an asshole; it's that he's a boring asshole. He's like the guy at the dinner party who tells tedious, anticlimactic stories with no end. Young's writing is pedestrian and unexceptional -- no better or worse than the average Maxim magazine staffer -- and his brand of aggressive charmlessness makes the book a singularly unpleasant read. Young's fellow Hollywood wannabes might identify with him, and people kinder than me might pity him, but I just can't stand the guy. If you want to sell out, go ahead, but don't expect anyone to feel sorry for you when you can't find a buyer.

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People by Toby Young
Da Capo
ISBN: 0306812274
340 Pages