I HATE EVERYONE STARTING WITH ME
By Joan Rivers
Berkley, $25.95, 256 pages
William F. Buckley Jr., addressing the issue of complaining in 1961, wrote: "When our voices are finally mute, when we have finally suppressed the natural instinct to complain, whether the vexation is trivial or grave, we shall have become automatons, incapable of feeling." How apt his words are for Joan Rivers, a woman whose complaints are trivial and whose body is almost in the grave.
The 79-year-old Miss Rivers knows fakery intimately, having constructed her anatomy and career on the concept, and so she despises it. She hates everyone, as she contends in her book "I Hate Everyone Starting With Me." The most alluring part of the book -- which isn't a book so much as a miscellany of jokes inside a book -- is its title, which promises to offend everyone and therefore no one in particular.
For the most part, Miss Rivers' views are better than her jokes, inasmuch as one takes them literally. She opposes child labor laws ("I only hire underage, ugly, foreign children"-- i.e., she gives money to poor, disadvantaged kids). She loves illegal immigrants because they work "hard" and "cheap" (sound economics). She says Adolf Hitler had "zero fashion sense" (true) and "a horrible attitude" (also true).
Many of her jokes are so deliberately offensive as to be inoffensive, even frivolous. She calls Stephen Hawking "a coffee table with a tongue," compares Oprah Winfrey's fluctuating weight to Monica Lewinsky's head and says Jesus Christ was "the worst carpenter ever until Richard Carpenter." She rejects Scientology because, unlike John Travolta, "I don't do fattening."
Miss Rivers makes some worthwhile observations. Many rappers are named after beverage items (Ice-T, Ice Cube, et al.). Happy Meals do not come with Prozac. Tip jars "are popping up more than Anthony Weiner at a photo shoot." Not all maniacs and serial killers have three names (John Wayne Gacy, but no Saddam Todd Hussein). On hyphenated Americans: "Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans, etc., only refer to themselves like that when they want a big parade in their honor, so they can drink in public." On extreme sports: "If you have to wear a helmet or sign a release form to do it, it's not a sport. It's a symptom of your sick need to pretend your meaningless life isn't meaningless."
She provides suggestions of new names for states. For Arkansas: "The Hillary's Considered Pretty Here State." For Connecticut: "The Gateway to More Interesting States." For Iowa: "The Now With Three Black People State." For Maryland: "The, Except for Courtney Love, Best Place to Catch Crabs State." For Mississippi: "The Stereotype Is Totally True State." For New Mexico: "The Almost as Successful as New Coke State" and "Only Slightly Better Than the Real Mexico."
Miss Rivers also lists her favorite excuses. Among them are the Holocaust, "I'm a widow," "I lost a child" and "I was raped when I was in college." (I maintain my own list. For telemarketers: "My child is hyperventilating." For Planned Parenthood activists: "I wish I could talk, but I'm on my way to buy birth control.") Fallacious statements, properly deployed, can make life more convenient and more amusing.
Miss Rivers does not always deploy them well. Many of her "hatreds" are too implausible to be funny. It's hard to imagine she hates people who stand in front of her at Burger King for the simple reason that it's hard to imagine her ever going to Burger King. Does she really want someone to push Betty White in front of a train? Was she really a judge at a Nevada state fair? Does she really think ugly adults shouldn't be allowed to breed? (Note: Miss Rivers has a daughter.)
In her acknowledgments, Miss Rivers expresses gratitude for "the people of the world" whose stupidity gives her a reason to complain. One of the ironies of professional misanthropy is that its practitioners must depend upon those they despise. In order to hate people, one needs people to hate. In the same way that doctors need sick patients, the police need criminals and witch hunters need witches, Miss Rivers needs readers.
For the sake of comedy, it's better to spit on people than to slobber over them. Miss Rivers sets out to do the former, and does so unconvincingly. Whether or not she hates everyone, it is obvious -- too obvious -- that her foremost objective is to make everyone laugh. When her complaints lack conviction, they lack humor. Miss Rivers, quite simply, doesn't hate enough.
Still, her heart is in the right place. Miss Rivers shows us, however unintentionally and imperfectly, that the dark side of life has a bright side, and vice versa.
After reading her book, I wondered: Is it better to light a candle than to curse the darkness? The answer, clearly, is no. It's much better to turn on a lamp and curse the sort of people who still use candles.
Windsor Mann is the editor of "The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism" (Da Capo Press, 2011).