Sunday, January 11, 2009


By Sam MacDonald

St. Martin’s, $24.95, 304 pages


As a former editor of libertarianism’s flagship magazine Reason, Sam MacDonald presumably has some familiarity with the Austrian school of economics and, thus, the concept of recession as a necessary corrective to excess. But you will never find anything in a theoretical economics textbook (or most memoirs, for that matter) as shockingly hilarious or graphically honest as what transpires over the course of “The Urban Hermit,” the story of Mr. MacDonald’s personal bubble bursting after an extended carefree boom comprised of too many years spent trolling “roads to hell paved with good intentions and meatloaf.”

Mr. MacDonald’s foray into adulthood began promisingly enough. At 18, he left for Yale with a 32-inch waistline and a sense of possibility. A decade later the Ivy League grad had ballooned to 340 pounds, was dead broke on the begging end of numerous parental bailouts and apathetic about nearly everything save his tab at a beloved dive bar. (Owners reciprocated this love by casting him as “a big fat guy who sat around and drank a lot” in a television commercial.) His home life - shared with a decadence-and-squalor-enabling cousin and “part-idiot” Pomeranian named Bootjack (“the kind of dog that loved to drink whiskey, but only if someone put it in a bowl with mustard”) - resembled a tripped-out aside in a William S. Burroughs novel.

It’s a stretch, certainly, to liken the IRS’ role in “The Urban Hermit” to Clarence the Angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (Let us pray heaven is not the kind of bureaucracy where every time a government auditor rings a doorbell an angel gets his wings.) Yet when the dread federal collection agency hits Mr. MacDonald with a bill he cannot pay, it sparks a crisis that leads to a profound change in the way he views and lives life - aka, the Urban Hermit Financial Emergency Rotgut Poverty Plan.

The urban hermit lives on eight dollars a week and 800 calories per day (“Horse fodder - if you hate your horse”) consisting mostly of cheap canned tuna (“an affront to dead fish everywhere”) and poorly cooked lentils (“To say that lentils taste like dirt would be to state the case exactly backward. Dirt, it turns out, tastes like lentils. I am confident that, had the lowly lentil plant never evolved, the world’s soil might today deliver a palate-pleasing sensation akin to ripe cantaloupe, fresh honey, or perhaps a Twix bar”). He shuns that which he loves best with the verve of a dying penitent and unscientifically measures whether he is dying of malnutrition by the number of push-ups he can do.

Such woes are, needless to say, fundamentally and spectacularly bourgeois. In Third World slums across the planet the urban hermit diet would be considered a great boon to the standard of living; the American nightmare of outgrowing the XXXL rack at Wal-Mart a mirage like fantasy of the world’s pauper.

To his credit, Mr. MacDonald is fully cognizant of this. “The Urban Hermit” is neither boastful nor self-pitying, trading both for the sharp, mordant humor and sparkling flair of writers like Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris. Mr. MacDonald, for instance, describes his financial crisis as, “doubly cruel in its dullness and the damnable respectability of my pursuers.” He refuses to blame an eating disorder, glandular imbalance or “crafty advertisers” for his obesity. “The problem, if you can call it that, was me,” Mr. MacDonald writes, determined not to be like “those people who go on the Atkins Diet, then complain about not getting to eat any bread.”

Sober, out of the bars and looking for distractions from the gnawing hunger, Mr. MacDonald manages to resuscitate his career, right his finances and adapt to the modern wooing techniques necessary to secure his future wife. Still, with chapter titles such as, “Stop Your Bellyaching: How to Shut the Hell Up and Mean It” and “The Fat Bastard’s Revenge,” Mr. MacDonald obviously isn’t looking to be the Next Big Thing in the self-help industry, even if his candid prose is sure to endear him to readers of varying weights, career prospects and degrees of social isolation.

Nevertheless, it is not difficult to see the worth of a parable of frugality and personal responsibility leading to triumph at this particular moment in our nation’s history. “When I saw something I wasn’t supposed to eat, I didn’t pick it up,” Mr. MacDonald writes. “When I saw something at the store that looked good, I didn’t buy it. Easy? No. Simple? Yes. And simple was exactly what I needed.”

Maybe it is what we all need.

• Shawn Macomber is a writer in Philadelphia.

THE URBAN HERMIT: A MEMOIR By Sam MacDonald. St. Martin’s, $24.95, 304 pages. REVIEWED BY SHAWN MACOMBER

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